An alcoholic beverage is a drink that contains ethanol (commonly called alcohol). Alcoholic beverages are divided into three general classes: beers, wines, and spirits.
Alcoholic beverages are consumed in almost every nation, and most nations have laws that regulate their production, sale, and consumption.
In particular, such laws specify the minimum age at which a person may legally buy or drink alcoholic beverages. This minimum age can be as low as 16 years, as in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. Most nations, however, set the minimum age at 18 years. In the United States, the minimum age is 21 years.
The production and consumption of alcohol occurs in most cultures of the world, from hunter-gatherer peoples to nation-states. Alcoholic beverages are often an important part of social events in these cultures. In many cultures, drinking plays a significant role in social interaction — mainly because of alcohol’s neurological effects.
Alcohol is a psychoactive drug that has a depressant effect. A high blood alcohol content is usually considered to be legal drunkenness because it reduces attention and slows reaction speed. Alcoholic beverages can be addictive, and the state of addiction to alcohol is known as alcoholism.
In many countries, people drink alcoholic beverages at lunch and dinner.
At times and places of poor public sanitation (such as Medieval Europe), the consumption of alcoholic drinks was a way of avoiding water-borne diseases such as cholera. Small beer and faux wine, in particular, were used for this purpose. Although alcohol kills bacteria, its low concentration in these beverages would have had only a limited effect. More important was that the boiling of water (required for the brewing of beer) and the growth of yeast (required for fermentation of beer and wine) would tend to kill dangerous microorganisms. The alcohol content of these beverages allowed them to be stored for months or years in simple wood or clay containers without spoiling. For this reason, they were commonly kept aboard sailing vessels as an important (or even the sole) source of hydration for the crew, especially during the long voyages of the early modern period.
In cold climates, strong alcoholic beverages such as vodka are popularly seen as a way to “warm up” the body, possibly because alcohol is a quickly absorbed source of food energy and because it dilates peripheral blood vessels (peripherovascular dilation). This is a misconception because the perception of warmth is actually caused by the transfer of heat from the body’s core to its extremities, where it is quickly lost to the environment.
- For details see Types of Alcohol
Alcoholic beverages that have a lower alcohol content (beer and wine) are produced by fermentation of sugar- or starch-containing plant material; beverages of higher alcohol content (spirits) are produced by fermentation followed by distillation.
Alcohol by content
- For details see Alcohol by volume
The concentration of alcohol in a beverage is usually stated as the percentage of alcohol by volume (ABV) or—in the United States—as proof. In the U.S.A., proof is twice the percentage of alcohol by volume at 60 degrees Fahrenheit (e.g., 80 proof = 40% ABV). Degrees proof were formerly used in the United Kingdom, where 100 degrees proof was equivalent to 57.1% ABV. Historically, this was the most dilute spirit that would sustain the combustion of gunpowder.
Ordinary distillation cannot produce alcohol of more than 95.6% ABV (191.2 proof) because at that point alcohol is an azeotrope with water. Alcohol of this high level of purity is commonly called neutral grain spirit.
Most yeasts cannot reproduce when the concentration of alcohol is higher than about 18%, so that is the practical limit for the strength of fermented beverages such as wine, beer, and sake. Strains of yeast have been developed that can reproduce in solutions of up to 25% ABV.
In the United Kingdom, serving size in licensed premises is regulated under the Weights and Measures Act (1985). Spirits (gin, whisky, rum, and vodka) must be sold in quantities of 25 millilitres or multiples thereof, or 35 millilitres or multiples thereof. A sign must be displayed stating whether the 25 ml or the 35 ml measure is being used.
Beer is typically sold in pints or half-pints. Traditionally, a crown stamp on a glass was used to indicate that the glass was a full-sized measure. In 2008 however, this was replaced by a Europe-wide mark “CE” (Conformite Europeenne), leading to public outcry at the removal of a stamp that had been in use for over 300 years.
In addition to this, a system of units of alcohol exists as a guideline for alcohol consumption. A unit of alcohol is defined as 10 millilitres of pure ethanol. The number of units present in a typical drink is printed on bottles. The system is intended as an aid to people regulating the amount of alcohol they drink; it is not used to determine serving sizes.
In the United States, the standardized serving of an alcoholic beverage contains 0.6 ounces (17.7 ml) of pure ethanol. That is approximately the amount of ethanol in a 12-ounce serving of beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine, or a 1.5-ounce glass (44.4 ml) of a 40% ABV spirit.
Outright prohibition of alcohol
Some countries forbid the production and consumption of alcoholic beverages.
In the United States, there was an attempt from 1920 to 1933 to eliminate the consumption of alcoholic beverages through national prohibition of their manufacture and sale. This period became known as the prohibition era. During this period the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States made manufacture, sale and transportation of alcoholic beverages illegal throughout the United States. However, this project led to the unintended consequences of causing widespread disrespect for the law as many people sought alcoholic beverages from illegal sources, and of creating a lucrative business for illegal purveyors of alcohol (bootleggers), which led to the development of organized crime. As a result prohibition became widely unpopular, leading to repeal of the 18th Amendment in 1933. Prior to national prohibition, beginning in the late 19th century, many states and localities had enacted prohibition within their jurisdictions, and following repeal of the 18th Amendment, some communities in the United States (known as dry counties) still ban alcohol sales.
The Nordic countries (Sweden, Norway, and Finland) also had a period of prohibition of alcohol in the early 20th century. This was the result of social democratic campaigning. In practice, however, the prohibition did not have popular support, and large-scale smuggling of spirits resulted. Following the end of the prohibition, state alcohol monopolies were established, and onerous, extremely detailed restrictions were placed on alcohol, in addition to record-high taxes on alcohol. Some of these restrictions have been lifted, but many remain. For example, supermarkets in Finland are allowed to sell only fermented beverages with an alcohol content up to 4.7%, but Alko, the government monopoly, is allowed to sell wine and spirits. This is also the case with the Swedish Systembolaget and the Norwegian Vinmonopolet.
Some Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia, prohibit alcohol for religious reasons.
Prohibition of drinking alcohol in public places
Drinking alcohol in public places, such as streets and parks, is against the law in most of the United States and in some European countries, but it is legal in others, such as Germany and the United Kingdom. In the Netherlands, it is not banned by national law, but many cities and towns prohibit possession of an open container of an alcoholic beverage in a public place.
In many countries, production of alcoholic beverages requires a license, and alcohol production is taxed.
In the United States, the sale of alcoholic beverages is controlled by the individual states, the counties or parishes within each state, and then by local jurisdictions within counties. For example, in most of North Carolina, beer and wine may be purchased in retail stores, but distilled spirits are only available at state ABC (Alcohol Beverage Control) stores. In Maryland, distilled spirits are available in liquor stores except in Montgomery County where the county runs the ABC stores. A county that prohibits the sale of alcohol is known as a dry county.
Ethanol (CH3CH2OH), the active ingredient in alcoholic drinks, for consumption purposes is always produced by fermentation – the metabolism of carbohydrates - by certain species of yeast in the absence of oxygen. The process of culturing yeast under alcohol-producing conditions is referred to as brewing. The same process produces carbon dioxide in situ, and may be used to carbonate the drink. However, this method leaves yeast residues and on the industrial scale, carbonation is usually done separately.
Drinks with a concentration of more than 50% ethanol by volume (100 US proof) are flammable liquids and easily ignited. Some exotic drinks gain their distinctive flavors through intentional ignition, such as the Flaming Dr Pepper. Spirits with a higher ethanol content can be ignited with ease by heating slightly, e.g. adding the spirit to a warmed shot glass.
Alcohols are toxicated into the corresponding aldehydes and then into the corresponding carboxylic acids. These metabolic products cause a poisoning and acidosis. In the case of other alcohols than ethanol, the aldehydes and carboxylic acids are poisonous and the acidosis can be lethal. In contrast, fatalities from ethanol are mainly found in extreme doses and related to induction of unconsciousness or chronic addiction (alcoholism).
Humans can metabolize ethanol as an energy-providing nutrient. Ethanol is metabolized into acetaldehyde and then into acetic acid. Acetic acid is esterified with coenzyme A to produce acetyl CoA. Acetyl CoA carries the acetyl moiety into the citric acid cycle, which produces energy by oxidizing the acetyl moiety into carbon dioxide. Acetyl CoA can also be used for biosynthesis. Acetyl CoA is an intermediate common with the metabolism of sugars and fats, and it is the product of glycolysis, the breakdown of glucose. In most states, individuals may freely produce wine and beer usually up to 100 gallons per adult per year, but no more than 200 gallons per household per year for personal consumption (but not for sale). However, in St. Mary's County, Maryland, a "bona fide" resident may sell beer and native wines from their home.
The production of distilled beverages is regulated and taxed. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (formerly one organization known as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) enforce federal laws and regulations related to alcohol. Illegal manufacture of distilled liquor is often referred to as "moonshining," and the product, which is not aged and contains a high percentage of alcohol, is often called "white lightning."
All alcoholic product packaging must contain a health warning from the Surgeon General.
In the United Kingdom, the Customs and Excise department issues distilling licenses. New Zealand is one of the few countries where it is not only legal to produce any form of alcohol for personal use, including spirits, it is neither taxed nor licensed. This has made the sale and use of home distillation equipment popular.
The names of some beverages are determined by the source of the material fermented. In general, a beverage fermented from a starch-heavy source (grain or potato), in which the starch must first be broken down into sugars (by malting, for example), will be called a beer; if the mash is distilled, the end product is a spirit. Wine is made from fermented grapes.
Brandy and wine are made only from grapes. If an alcoholic beverage is made from another kind of fruit, it is distinguished as fruit brandy or fruit wine. The variety of fruit must be specified, as (for example) "cherry brandy" or "plum wine".
In the USA and Canada, cider often means unfermented apple juice (see the article on cider), while fermented cider is called hard cider. Unfermented cider is sometimes called sweet cider. In the UK, cider refers to the alcoholic drink; in Australia the term is ambiguous.
Beer is generally made from barley, but can sometimes contain a mix of other grains. Whisky (or whiskey) is sometimes made from a blend of different grains, especially Irish whiskey which may contain several different grains. The style of whisk(e)y (Scotch, rye, Bourbon, corn) generally determines the primary grain used, with additional grains usually added to the blend (most often barley, and sometimes oats). As far as American whiskey is concerned, Bourbon (corn), and rye whiskey, must be at least 51% of respective constituent at fermentation, while corn whiskey (as opposed to Bourbon) must be at least 81%—all by American law similar to the French A.O.C (Appellation d'Origine Controlée).
Two common distilled beverages are vodka and gin. Vodka can be distilled from any source of agricultural origin (grain and potatoes being the most common), but the main characteristic of vodka is that it is so thoroughly distilled as to exhibit less of the flavors derived from its source material. Some distillers and experts, however, may disagree, arguing that potato vodkas display a creamy mouthfeel, while rye vodkas will have heavy nuances of rye. Other vodkas may display citrus notes. Gin is a similar distillate which has been flavored by contact with herbs and other plant products—especially juniper berries, but also including angel root, licorice, cardamom, grains of paradise, Bulgarian rose petals, and many others.
Applejack is an example of a drink originally made by freeze distillation, which is easy to do in cold climates. Although both distillation and freeze distillation reduce the water content, they are not equivalent, because freeze distillation concentrates poisonous higher alcohols rather than reducing them like distillation.
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