Chances are you’ve seen the “proof” label on a bottle of liquor and wondered what it meant. Why are there two different numbers on the label to describe the potency of a liquor?
In this article, we’ll break down the meaning of alcohol proof and alcohol percentage, and provide answers to some of the most common questions related to both.
What does alcohol proof mean?
Alcohol proof is a unit of measurement used to determine the ethanol content in an alcoholic beverage. As the proof gets higher, the drink gets stronger.
The term "proof" as it pertains to alcohol has origins that date back to the 18th century when soldiers in the British Royal Navy would add rum to their gunpowder to test its strength. If the weapon still fired with gunpowder doused in liquor, the soldiers had proof that the rum was strong enough for them.
The official proof system was established by the government in 1848 when they dictated that any liquor bottle with 50 percent ABV (alcohol by volume) would be labeled as “100 proof” for tax purposes.
This was the baseline for the proof system and any liquor that was more or less than 50 percent was taxed accordingly based on their relationship to the baseline. For example, a bottle of vodka with an alcohol content of 40 percent would be deemed 80 proof. True liquor can go as low as 80 proof and as high as 192 proof, or 96 percent alcohol.
Alcohol proof is measured differently around the world. France has its proof system called the Gay-Lussac scale, which was created by a French scientist named Joseph-Louis Gay-Lussac in 1824. The scale considers proof to be equivalent to ABV and uses "degrees GL" as its unit of measurement. In France, a liquor that contained 60 percent alcohol would be considered 60 proof, or 60 degrees GL by their scale.
Most other countries now use a European scale called the ABV standard, developed by the Organization of Legal Metrology, which doesn’t require conversion to proof. A liquor that contained 60 percent alcohol would simply be labeled as 60 percent alcohol without mention of proof.
Today, U.S. law no longer requires the presence of a proof designation on liquor bottles, but many brands continue to print it on the labels anyway out of respect to the tradition.
Why doesn’t ‘proof’ pertain to beer or wine?
The proof system was created for liquors above 40 proof in strength. Beer and wine have a much lower alcohol content than liquor, ruling out the need for a proof designation.
When you consider the origin of the term “proof” it makes sense that alcohol would need to be higher in proof to even be scaled by the proof system, as soldiers definitely wouldn't have been able to light a cannon with beer-soaked gunpowder.
The average beer comes in at around 5 percent ABV and the average glass of wine is around 12 percent. Technically you could acknowledge that your beer is 10 proof because it contains 5 percent ABV, but it isn’t necessary and you definitely won’t find it on a label. For reference, let’s look at the alcohol content levels of some of America’s most popular beer and wine.
- Budweiser- 5 percent ABV
- Miller Lite- 4.2 percent ABV
- Blue Moon- 5.4 percent ABV
- Stella Artois- 5.2 percent ABV
- Corona- 4.6 percent ABV
- Heineken- 5 percent ABV
- Moscato d’Asti- 5.5 percent ABV
- Kabinett Riesling- 8 percent ABV
- Barefoot Pinot Grigio- 12.5 percent ABV
- Andre Champagne- 9.5 percent ABV
- Barefoot Pinot Noir- 13.5 percent ABV
- Yellow Tail Merlot- 13 percent ABV
What does alcohol percentage mean?
Alcohol by volume, or ABV, is used to measure the content of alcohol in beer, wine, liquor, and other alcoholic beverages. The percentage found on the label of an alcoholic beverage refers to the percentage of ethanol, or alcohol, in the drink.
Based on the ABV of each type of alcoholic beverage, a standard drink is defined as 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, 3.3 ounces of champagne, 1.5 ounces of liquor, or 8 ounces of malt liquor.
The percentage of alcohol differs in various types of alcoholic drinks, which is why a standard drink is not the same size between wine, beer, and liquor. It takes the body around an hour to metabolize the alcohol in one standard drink.
Alcohol is not digested like food and other beverages, it’s carried through the bloodstream and absorbed into organs and body tissue. Depending on variables like weight and lack of sleep, different people metabolize alcohol at different rates and are affected differently.
What is considered a high proof of alcohol?
The designation of proof concerning alcohol content is typically only used in liquors that are at least 40 proof. Flavored liquors like Malibu and Fireball are among the lowest-proof alcohols that the 'proof' designation would pertain to, coming in at 42 proof and 66 proof, respectively. To be considered a straight liquor, the alcohol must carry a minimum of 80 proof.
Popular vodka brands like Tito’s, Grey Goose, and Ciroc ring in at 80 proof and are considered to be low-proof in comparison to other straight liquors.
High-proof alcohols can legally go up to 192 proof in the United States. The strongest liquor you’ll find on a shelf in the United States is the Polish vodka, Spirytus, coming in at 192 proof or 96 percent alcohol.
For reference, this is an even higher alcohol content than Everclear, which contains 95 percent alcohol.
There isn’t a specific number that denotes whether alcohol qualifies as being 'high-proof,' but a good standard to go by is whether or not the alcohol is likely to be watered down before bottling.
Alcohol with proof of around 80-85 tends to naturally come out a little higher in proof than it's sold as, so it gets toned down with water before being bottled to reach the right proof. High-proof alcohols are labeled as such and therefore don't have to be watered down to reduce the alcohol content, so you can drink them in their pure form and enjoy the flavor profile as it was intended to be tasted.
When many people think of high-proof alcohol, they tend to imagine drinking something that’ll set their throat on fire. What they don’t realize is that because most lower-proof alcohols are watered down before they get bottled, the natural flavor of the alcohol is diluted along with the potency. Purists will opt for the higher-proof liquor because they know the integrity of the alcohol is still intact.
Is there a 200 proof alcohol?
Pure alcohol, also known as ethanol, is extremely volatile and dissipates even more easily than water. While it is possible to buy 200 proof alcohol, it isn’t sold for consumption.
Ethanol has an affinity for water and, when exposed to air, will draw out any moisture from the atmosphere and suck it up. This makes it impossible to pour yourself a glass of 200 proof alcohol because even if it was 200 proof when you began pouring it, it would no longer be 200 proof by the time you brought the glass to your lips.
Makers of liquor have found that the trick to distilling alcohol is to heat a mixture of ethanol and water to the point where only the alcohol boils, then collect the ethanol steam.
Because ethanol is an azeotrope, its vapor forms a certain proportion instead of boiling purely. Due to the moisture in the air that ethanol draws in, steam from ethanol is only 96 percent ethanol, making that the highest concentration of alcohol that can be distilled in liquor.
Some of the highest-proof alcohols on the market include:
- Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Bourbon Whiskey (136 proof)
- Stroh Rum (160 proof)
- Sunset Very Strong Rum (169 proof)
- Balkan 176 Vodka (176 proof)
- Hapsburg Gold Label Premium Reserve Absinthe (179 proof)
- River Antoine Royale Grenadian Rum (180 proof)
- Everclear (190 proof)
- Golden Grain (190 proof)
- Spirytus (192 proof)
What proof of alcohol will kill bacteria?
We’ve all seen at least one dramatic movie scene where someone poured liquor on a wound because it seemed like the only viable option. While pouring liquor on a wound isn't recommended over hydrogen peroxide, alcohol indeed kills bacteria.
According to the CDC, a solution used to disinfect must contain at least 70 percent alcohol or 140 proof. This includes hand sanitizers, disinfecting wipes, and most household cleaners.
Because of its incredibly high proof, liquors like Everclear can technically be used as a disinfectant due to their ability to kill bacteria. That being said, doctors advise against doing so, as pure alcohol is dangerous and excessively drying.
Recently there have been claims that drinking alcohol is effective in killing viruses like COVID-19, which is far from accurate. A typical serving of hard liquor contains around 40 percent alcohol, but once consumed the amount of alcohol that enters your bloodstream is much lower.
A blood alcohol level of anything over 0.08 percent is considered to indicate intoxication, and that’s still not even a thousandth of the concentration of alcohol in disinfectants and sanitizers. Even liquors with exceedingly high concentrations of alcohol, like 190 proof Everclear, wouldn’t get your blood alcohol level anywhere near high enough to kill a virus without killing you first.
5 Best-Tasting High-Proof Alcohols
High-proof alcohols get a bad rap for tasting like a ball of fire, but they don’t all taste like Everclear. Many high-proof alcohols make excellent additions to cocktails because they can hold up to mixers in a way that alcohols with lower proofs cannot. High-proof liquor has a far more concentrated and bold flavor profile than its lower-proof counterparts.
For a liquor that cuts through any fruit juices or syrups it’s mixed with to balance out the drink for a full-bodied flavor, high-proof is the way to go. Some of the best-tasting high-proof alcohols include:
- Plymouth Navy Strength Gin (114 Proof). Plymouth describes their Navy Strength Gin as bold, intense, and aromatic. With flavors of juniper berries and citrus, it’s regarded as one of the best gins on the market. The “Navy Strength” part of the name is a nod to the origin of the word “proof” and references when soldiers in the British Royal Navy would test the strength of liquor by adding it to their gunpowder. To qualify as being "navy strength," gin has to contain at least 57 percent alcohol or 114 proof.
- Booker’s Bourbon (130 Proof). Booker Noe, the master distiller for Jim Beam, initially created this bourbon only for friends. Realizing it was too good to keep to himself, Noe eventually released Booker’s Bourbon to the public. With an ABV of 65 percent and notes of vanilla, brown sugar, cinnamon, and maple syrup, this bourbon will knock your socks off and taste good while doing it.
- Smith & Cross Navy Strength Rum (114 Proof). This rum is pot-distilled, which produces more flavorful results than the traditional column distilling method. While the faint of heart may not want to try this one on its own, the notes of molasses, pineapple, and banana are delicious when mixed into a cocktail.
- Belvedere Intense 100 Proof Vodka (100 Proof). Distilled from 100 percent Polish Dankowskie rye, Belvedere’s 100 proof vodka was made to be bold. Notes of vanilla, cream, and butterscotch define this elegant liquor and mix perfectly with citrus fruits for a refreshing cocktail.
- Rittenhouse Straight Rye Whisky (100 Proof). Inspired by Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, this spicy rye whiskey contains notes of cocoa, cinnamon, citrus, vanilla, and nutmeg, and can be enjoyed neat, on the rocks, or mixed into cocktails. Ringing in at 50 percent alcohol, this whiskey is lower in proof than many other high-proof liquors but still packs a powerful punch.