Your guide to alcohol units and strength

Lesley Dobson / 09 December 2014 ( 04 July 2017 )

Understanding how alcohol is measured, and knowing the maximum amount of alcohol you should drink a week, can help keep you healthy.



New British Government guidelines issued in January 2016 recommend that men should not drink more than 14 units of alcohol each week, the same level as for women.

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How much is a unit of alcohol?

Alcohol is measured in units. One unit is 10 ml of pure alcohol. The amount of alcohol our bodies can cope with varies depending on your age, health and sex. However, it takes an average adult about an hour to process one unit of alcohol.

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What does alcohol by volume mean?

Some drinks are stronger in terms of alcohol content than others. The amount of alcohol in a bottle or can of drink is shown as a percentage of the content – or volume – of the drink.

You can find out how strong a drink is by looking at its label. This will show a percentage, followed by “ABV” which is short for alcohol by volume. Some labels just use the abbreviation “vol”. So if the label on a bottle says 12 ABV, it means that the content contains 12% pure alcohol.

This is a useful way of checking how much alcohol you’re consuming, rather than simply how much beer or wine. Some ales, for instance, are 3.5% ABV, but some stronger lagers can be as much as 5% or 6% ABV. This applies to wine too, which can range from 13% ABV to over 14%ABV.

How much alcohol is in your glass?

One unit of alcohol is about half a pint of normal lager, or one measure of spirits. There are about one and a half units of alcohol in a small (125ml) glass of wine.

However, unless you state precisely what strength beer you want, or whether you want a small or large glass of wine, you may be getting more alcohol than you bargained for.

If you drink a pint of strong lager, or a large glass of wine, you could be having more than three units of alcohol. This is at the upper limit of the guidelines for daily consumption for women.

Are you drinking more than you think?

Tip Before you down your beer or wine check its ABV.

Small glasses of wine usually contain 125ml (a slightly bigger glass can hold 175 ml), but a large glass contains 250ml. That’s a third of a bottle of wine, which can come to about three units of alcohol, in a single glass. Just by having two or three drinks, you could have downed a bottle of wine, and had nearly three times the recommended daily intake.

Tip Remember to say whether you want a small or large glass of wine.

Tip Drinking at home? Pour yourself small amounts, don’t fill your glass to the brim

Tip Pour your own drinks – it’s easier to keep track of how much you’ve had

How strong is your drink?

Beer

  • German Lager 3% to 6% ABV
  • Bitter under 3% to 7% ABV
  • India Pale Ale  6-7%
  • Stout 5-10%

Wine

  • Table wine 8-14%
  • Claret  6-10%
  • Shiraz 10-14%
  • Rose    10.5%
  • White medium 10.7%
  • White dry 11%
  • Red medium 11.5%
  • White sparkling 12%
  • Cabernet, Pinot Noir 11-14%
  • Dessert wine 14-20%
  • Zinfandels 17-22%
  • Port 20%

Some wines, especially those produced in “New World” countries, such as the USA, Australia, South America and South Africa, have become more alcoholic over recent years. Make sure you check the ABV on the label before buying. The result is that some of these wines now have an ABV of 17%. However, most wines range from 11% ABV to 14% ABV.

Spirits

  • Bourbon 51-79% ABV
  • Brandy has 40-45% ABV
  • Gin has 37.5% ABV  
  • Vodka has 35-50% ABV
  • Whisky has 40-53% ABV

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.