How Alcohol Works

Ethyl Alcohol
The alcohol found in alcoholic beverages is ethyl alcohol (ethanol). The molecular structure of ethanol looks like this:

H3 C - C - O - H

In this structure, C is carbon, H is hydrogen, O is oxygen and the hyphens are the chemical bonds between the atoms. For purposes of clarity, the bonds between the three hydrogen atoms and the left carbon atom are not shown. The OH (O-H) group on the molecule is what gives it the specific chemical properties of an alcohol. For the remainder of this article, when we say "alcohol," we mean ethanol.

You will not find pure alcohol in most drinks; drinking pure alcohol can be deadly because it only takes a few ounces of pure alcohol to quickly raise the blood alcohol level into the danger zone. For various types of beverages, the ethanol concentration (by volume) is as follows:

  • Beer = 4 to 6 percent (average of about 4.5 percent)
  • Wine = 7 to 15 percent (average of about 11 percent)
  • Champagne = 8 to 14 percent (average of about 12 percent)
  • Distilled spirits (e.g. rum, gin, vodka, whiskey) = 40 to 95 percent. Most of the typical spirits purchased in liquor stores are 40 percent alcohol. Some highly concentrated forms of rum and whisky (75 to 90 percent) can be purchased in liquor stores. Some highly concentrated forms of whiskey (i.e. moonshine) can be made and/or purchased illegally.
In most U.S. states, you must be 21 years or older to buy alcoholic beverages, and there are penalties for serving or selling alcoholic beverages to minors.