Alcoholic beverages are drinks containing ethanol.
Alcoholic beverages have been widely used since the remote antiquity by many civilizations around the world, as a component of the standard diet, for hygienic or medical reasons, for their relaxant and euphoric effects, for recreational purposes, artistic inspiration, as aphrodisiacs, and other reasons. Some have been invested with symbolic or religious significance suggesting the mystical use of alcohol, e.g. by Greek religion in the ecstatic rituals of Dionysus, god of wine; in the Christian Eucharist; and at the Jewish Passover.
However, some people are prone to developing a chemical dependency to alcohol, alcoholism. The results of alcoholism are considered a major health problem in many nations.
Frequent excessive consumption can harmfully interfere with the user's social and financial well-being. The neurological effects of alcohol use are often a factor in deadly motor vehicle accidents and fights. People under the influence of alcohol sometimes end up in dangerous or compromising situations where they would not remain if sober.
Some religions—most notably Islam, Latter-day Saints and the Nikaya schools of Buddhism, and some Protestant sects of Christianity—forbid or discourage the consumption of alcoholic beverages for these and other reasons.
Most governments regulate or restrict the sale and use of alcohol.
The ethanol (CH3CH2OH) in alcoholic beverages is almost always produced by fermentation, i.e. the metabolism of carbohydrates (usually sugars) by certain species of yeast in the absence of oxygen. The process of culturing yeast under conditions that produce alcohol is referred to as brewing.
The concentration of alcohol in an alcoholic beverage may be specified in percent alcohol by volume (ABV), in percentage by weight (sometimes abbreviated w/w for weight for weight), or in proof. The 'proof' measurement roughly corresponds in a 2:1 ratio to percent alcoholic content by volume (e.g. 80 proof = 40% ABV). Common distillation maxes out at 190 proof because at that point ethanol is an azeotrope with water.
Most yeasts cannot grow when the concentration of alcohol is higher than about 18% by volume, so that is a practical limit for the strength of fermented beverages such as wine, beer, and sake. Strains of yeast have been developed that can survive in solutions of up to 25% alcohol by volume, but these were bred for ethanol fuel production, not beverage production. Liquors are produced by distillation of a fermented product, concentrating the alcohol and eliminating some of the by-products. Many wines are fortified wines with additional grain alcohol to achieve higher ABV than is easily reached using fermentation alone.
Ethanol is a moderately good solvent for many "fatty" substances and essential "oils", and thus facilitates the inclusion of several coloring, flavoring, and aromatic compounds to alcoholic beverages, especially to distilled ones. These flavoring ingredients may be naturally present in the starting material, or may be added before fermentation, before distillation, or before bottling the distilled product. Sometimes the flavor is obtained by allowing the beverage to stand for months or years in barrels made of special wood, or in bottles where scented twigs or fruits — or even insects — have been inserted.
A well-stocked bar will include a selection of beers and wines, along with the typical liqours of vodka, rum, gin, tequila, and whisky; each in varying qualities from "well" quality (off brand) to premium quality (name brand) to "top shelf" (usually very expensive, ranging from $50 to several hundred USD per 750 ml bottle). Alcoholic beverages can be combined at the time of serving, sometimes with other ingredients, to create cocktails or mixed drinks. Small servings of pure liquor (shots) are also common, with whisky and tequila being traditionally popular selections.
Fermented alcoholic beverages have been known since pre-historical times. Beer was certainly known in Babylonia before 4000 BC, as attested by recipes found on clay tablets.
Wine was consumed in Classical Greece at breakfast or at symposia, and in the 1st century BC it was part of the diet of most Roman citizens. However, both Greeks and Romans generally consumed their wine watered (from 1 parts of wine to 1 part of water, to 1 part of wine to 4 parts of water). The transformation of water into wine at a wedding feast is one of the miracles attributed to Jesus in the New Testament, and his symbolic use of wine in the Last Supper led to it becoming an essential part of the Catholic Eucharist rite.
In spite of the Qur'anic ban on alcoholic beverages, wine (usually sold by Christian tavern-keepers) remained fairly popular in Islamic lands over the centuries, as revealed in the verses of Persian mathematician Omar Khayyam (1040–1131):
- "Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
- A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse—and Thou
- Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
And Wilderness is Paradise enow." 
In Europe during the Middle Ages, beer was consumed by the whole family, thanks to a triple fermentation process — the men had the strongest, then women, then children. A document of the times mentions nuns having an allowance of six pints of ale a day. Cider and pomace wine were also widely available, while grape wine was the prerogative of the higher classes. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, wine production in Europe appears to have been sustained chiefly by monasteries.
By the times the Europeans reached the Americas in the 15th century, several native civilizations had developed alcoholic beverages. According to a post-Conquest Aztec document, consumption of the local "wine" (pulque) was generally restricted to religious ceremonies, but freely allowed to those over 70 years old (possibly the all-time record for legal drinking age). The natives of South America manufactured a beer-like product from cassava or maize (cauim, chicha), which had to be chewed before fermentation in order to turn the starch into sugars. (Curiously, the same technique was used in ancient Japan to make sake from rice and other starchy crops.)
The medicinal use of alcoholic beverages was mentioned in Sumerian and Egyptian texts dated from 2100 BC or earlier. The Hebrew Bible recommends giving alcoholic drinks to those who are dying or depressed, so that they can forget their misery.
Main article: Distilled beverage
Beer and wine are typically limited to a maximum 15 percent alcohol(although brewers such as Samual Adams have reached 25% alcohol), beyond that yeast is adversely affected and can not ferment. Higher levels of alcohol have historically been obtained in a number of ways, since Babylonia in the fourth millennium BC, but it was not until the still was invented by Islamic alchemists in the 8th or 9th centuries that the history of distilled beverages begins. Alcohol appears first in Europe in the mid 12th century and by the early 14th century it spread throughout Europe. It also spread eastward, mainly by the Mongols, and was practiced in China by the 14th century. However, recent archeological evidence has supported the idea that China has had wines and distilled beverages dating back to 5000 BC. Paracelsus gave alcohol its modern name, taking it from the Arabic word which means "finely divided", in reference to what is done to wine.
In many countries, alcoholic beverages are commonly consumed at the major daily meals (lunch and dinner).
In places and eras with poor public sanitation, such as Medieval Europe, consumption of alcoholic beverages (particularly weak or "small" beer) was one method of avoiding water-borne diseases such as the cholera. Though strong alcohol kills bacteria, the low concentration in beer or even wine will have only a limited effect. Probably the boiling of water, which is required for the brewing of beer, and the growth of yeast, which would tend to crowd out other micro-organisms, were more important than the alcohol itself. In any case, the ethanol (and possibly other ingredients) of alcoholic beverages allows them to be stored for months or years in simple wood or clay containers without spoiling, which was certainly a major factor in their popularity.
In colder climates, strong alcoholic beverages are popularly seen as a way to "warm up" the body, possibly because ethanol is a quickly absorbed source of food energy and dilates peripheral blood vessels. This however is a dangerous myth, and people experiencing hypothermia should avoid alcohol.
In many cultures, both contemporary and historical, alcoholic beverages — mostly because of their neurological effects — have also played an important role in various kinds of social interaction. While other psychoactive drugs (such as opium, coca, khat, cannabis, kava-kava, etc.) also have millennial traditions of social use, only coffee and tobacco have been as universally used and accepted as ethanol is today.
Most countries have rules forbidding the sale of alcoholic beverages to children. For example, in the Netherlands and Germany, one has to be 16 to buy beer or wine and 18 to buy distilled alcoholic beverages. However, possession of alcoholic beverages is not illegal for minors in Germany. Law here is directed at the potential sellers of alcoholic beverages and not at the minors. German law puts control concerning the consumption of alcoholic beverage into the hands of custodial persons and persons with parential power.See 
The difference between U.S. and German law has occasionally led to severe problems with exchange students from the U.S. who visited Germany. The problem stems from the fact that when the pupils are in Germany they are subject to German law, but as visitors from the U.S. (and pupils of an American school) they should still obey U.S. law. Their German hosts might not have a problem serving them German beer but the pupils might be in trouble when they return to the U.S.
In law, sometimes the term "intoxicating agent" is used for a category of substances which includes alcoholic beverages and some drugs. Giving any of these substances to a person to create an abnormal condition of the mind (such as drunkenness), in order to facilitate committing a crime, may be an additional crime.
Some countries may forbid the commerce, consumption or advertising of alcoholic beverages, or restrict them in various ways. During the period known as Prohibition, from 1919 to 1933, it was illegal to manufacture, transport, import, export, or sell alcoholic beverages in the United States. Many Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia, continue to prohibit alcohol for religious reasons. In the United States there are still communities with a ban on alcohol sales. Weston is one of 17 communities in Massachusetts with such a ban. In 2003 there was the first attempt to change that rule after at least 25 years. It was not successful.
Most countries have laws against drunk driving, driving with a certain concentration of ethanol in the blood. The legal threshold of blood alcohol content ranges from 0.0% to 0.05% or 0.08%, according to local law.
Most countries also specify a legal drinking age, below which the consumption of alcohol is prohibited. In the US, the legal age in every state has been 21 since the passage of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act in 1984, which tied federal highway funds to states' raising their minimum drinking age to 21.
In many countries, production of alcoholic beverages requires a license, and alcohol production is taxed. In the U.S., 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, though most regulations regarding serving and selling alcoholic beverages are made by the individual states. For example, in the state of Washington, one can only buy bottles of spirits in state-run stores, whereas in many other states, these can be bought in supermarkets. There also exist intrastate regulatory differences, as between Montgomery County, Maryland and the rest of the state. In the UK the Customs and Excise department issues distilling licences.
Effects on the human body
In small amounts, ethanol causes a mild euphoria and removes inhibitions. In large doses, ethanol acts as a central nervous system (CNS) depressant and causes drunkenness (at a blood ethanol content of about 0.1%). At higher contents, alcohol causes intoxication, coma and death. A blood ethanol content above 0.4% can be fatal, although regular heavy drinkers can tolerate somewhat higher levels than non-drinkers. Eight to ten drinks per hour is considered a fatal dosage for the average 120 lb person. One drink is equivalent to one shot of 40% abv (80 proof) liquor, one 12 fl oz (355 ml) beer, or one 4–5 oz (120–150 ml) glass of wine.
In the UK, a "unit" of alcohol is 10 ml pure ethanol; so examples of drinks containing one unit of alcohol include one 25 ml measure of spirits (40% ABV), one 125 ml glass of wine (8% ABV), one half-pint (284 ml) of weak (3.5% ABV) beer, or just over one third of a pint (about 200 ml) of "premium" (5% ABV) lager.
Highest recorded non-lethal level of alcohol is 0.914 mg/dl.
Alcoholism, the dependency on alcohol, is a major public health problem. Alcoholics develop a number of health problems, with cirrhosis of the liver being the most important one.
Excessive alcohol consumption during pregnancy carries a heavy risk of causing a series of permanent mental and physical defects in the child, known as fetal alcohol syndrome.
Action on the brain
Ethanol is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream and reaches the brain. As a small molecule, it is able to cross the blood-brain barrier. The euphorizing effects of ethanol are probably due to its causing the release of endorphins, natural "feel-good" molecules.
The CNS depressant effect likely is due to ethanol's acting on the BK channels. A BK channel is a calcium dependent potassium channel. It has been known to act on GABA receptors, but this is probably just a secondary effect from activation of the BK channels. Its effect on GABA receptors is probably similar to the action of benzodiazepines such as diazepam. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, meaning it acts to slow down or inhibit nerve impulses. Ethanol increases the effectiveness of GABA acting through GABAA receptors. When used over a long time, ethanol changes the number and type of GABA receptors, and this is thought to be the cause of the violent withdrawal effects of alcoholics.
Ethanol also interferes with synaptic firing and causes the death of brain cells. This cell death is caused by an increased concentration of intracellular calcium which has several effects. It weakens the electrochemical gradient across the cell membranes. It is this gradient which is the motive force of membrane pumps and channels (cells, especially neurons, quickly die without proper membrane pump and channel function). Calcium also activates proteases that cause degradation of cell proteins.
There is also direct damage to cell membranes from free-radicals that are produced from alcohol metabolism.
Small amounts of alcohol do not act as a carcinogen. However, many studies have shown that large amounts of alcohol greatly increase the risk of developing a cancer. The strongest link between alcohol and cancer involves cancers of the upper digestive tract, including the esophagus, the mouth, the pharynx, and the larynx. Less consistent data link alcohol consumption and cancers of the liver, breast, and colon.
Upper digestive tract. Chronic heavy drinkers have a higher incidence of esophageal cancer than does the general population. The risk appears to increase as alcohol consumption increases. An estimated 75 percent of esophageal cancers in the United States are attributable to chronic, excessive alcohol consumption.
Nearly 50 percent of cancers of the mouth, pharynx, and larynx are associated with heavy drinking. According to mid-1980s U.S. case-control study, people who consumed an average of more than four drinks per day incurred a nine-fold increase in risk of oral and pharyngeal cancer, while there was about a four-fold increase in risk associated with smoking two or more packs of cigarettes per day. Heavy drinkers who also were heavy smokers experienced a greater than 36-fold excess compared to abstainers from both products.
Liver. Prolonged, heavy drinking has been associated in many cases with primary liver cancer. However, it is liver cirrhosis, whether caused by alcohol or another factor, that is thought to induce the cancer. In areas of Africa and Asia, liver cancer afflicts 50 or more people per 100,000 per year, usually associated with cirrhosis caused by hepatitis viruses. In the United States, liver cancer is relatively uncommon, afflicting approximately 2 people per 100,000, but excessive alcohol consumption is linked to as many as 36 percent of these cases by some investigators.
For further information, see Alcohol and cancer
Metabolism of alcohol and action on the liver
The liver contains a special enzyme (alcohol dehydrogenase) that breaks down alcohols into acetaldehyde, which is turned into acetic acid by the enzyme acetaldehyde dehydrogenase, and then yet another enzyme converts the acetate into fats or carbon dioxide and water. The fats are mostly deposited locally which leads to the characteristic "beer belly". Chronic drinkers, however, so tax this metabolic pathway that things go awry: fatty acids build up as plaques in the capillaries around liver cells and those cells begin to die, which leads to the liver disease cirrhosis. The liver is part of the body's filtration system and if it is damaged then certain toxins build up thus leading to symptoms of jaundice.
The alcohol dehydrogenase of women is less effective than that of men. Combined with the lower amount of water in women's bodies, this means that women typically become drunk earlier than men.
Some people, especially those of East Asian descent, have a genetic mutation in their acetaldehyde dehydrogenase gene, resulting in less potent acetaldehyde dehydrogenase. This leads to a buildup of acetaldehyde after alcohol consumption, causing hangover-like symptoms such as flushing, nausea, and dizziness. These people are unable to drink much alcohol before feeling sick, and are therefore less susceptible to alcoholism. ,  This adverse reaction can be artificially reproduced by drugs such as disulfiram, which are used to treat chronic alcoholism by inducing an acute sensitivity to alcohol.
Consumption of ethanol has a rapid diuretic effect, meaning that more urine than usual is produced, since ethanol inhibits the production of antidiuretic hormone.
Overconsumption can therefore lead to dehydration (the loss of water). It is difficult to replenish the body's fluids using only alcoholic beverages. As large amounts of alcohol are consumed, the diuretic effect causes the body to lose more water than is contained in the beverage.
A common after-effect of ethanol intoxication is the unpleasant sensation known as hangover, which is partly due to the dehydrating effect of ethanol. Hangover symptoms include dry mouth, headache, nausea and light sensitivity. These symptoms are partly due to the toxic acetaldehyde produced from alcohol by alcohol dehydrogenase, and partly due to general dehydration. The dehydration portion of the hangover effect can be mitigated by drinking plenty of water between and after alcoholic drinks. Other components of the hangover are thought to come from the various other chemicals in an alcoholic drink, such as the tannins in red wine, and the results of various metabolic processes of alcohol in the body, but few scientific studies have attempted to verify this. Consuming a large amount of water is the best way to overcome a hangover.
Beneficial effects of alcohol
Several studies have shown that regular consumption of moderate amounts of alcohol lowers the incidence of coronary heart disease and raises the level of high density lipoprotein cholesterol ("good cholesterol"). See Alcohol consumption and health.
Types of alcoholic beverages
Alcoholic beverages include low-alcohol-content beverages produced by fermentation of sugar- or starch-containing products, and high-alcohol-content beverages produced by distillation of the low-alcohol-content beverages. Sometimes, the alcohol content of low-alcohol-content beverages is increased by adding distilled product, particularly in the case of wines. Such fortified wines include Port wine and Sherry.
The process involved (as well as the resulting alcohol content) defines the finished product. A "beer" involves a relatively short (incomplete) fermentation process and an equally short aging process (a week or two) resulting in an alcohol content generally between 3-8%, as well as natural carbonation. A "wine" involves a longer (complete) fermentation process, and a relatively long aging process (months or years -- sometimes decades) resulting in an alcohol content between 7-18%. (Note that sparkling wine is generally made by adding a small amount of sugar before bottling). Distilled products are generally not made from a "beer" that would normally be palatable as fermentation is normally completed, but no aging is involved until after distillation. Most distilled liquors are 40% alcohol by volume.
The names of some beverages are determined by the source of the material fermented:
||Name of fermented beverage
||Name of distilled beverage
juice of fruits, other than apples or pears
wine (most commonly from grapes)
brandy, Cognac (France), Branntwein (Germany)
juice of apples
applejack (or apple brandy), Calvados
juice of pears
perry, or pear cider
juice of sugarcane, or molasses
||basi, betsa-betsa (regional)
juice of agave
juice of plums
grappa (Italy), Trester (Germany), Marc (France)
||distilled mead ("mead brandy" or "honey brandy")
potato and/or grain
vodka: potato mostly used in Ukraine, otherwise grain
Note that in common speech, wine or brandy is made from grapes unless the fruit is specified: "plum wine" or "cherry brandy" for example, although in some cases grape-derived alcohol is added.
In the USA, 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. Also, applejack was originally made by a freezing process described in the article on cider which was equivalent to distillation but more easily done in the cold climate of New England. In the UK, cider is always alcoholic, and in Australia it can be either.
Beer is generally made from barley, but can sometimes contain a mix of other grains. Whisky is sometimes made from a blend of different grains, especially Irish whiskey which may contain several different grains. The style of whisky (Scotch, Rye, Bourbon) generally determines the primary grain used, with additional grains usually added to the blend (most often barley, and sometimes oats).
Two common distilled beverages are vodka and gin. Vodka can be distilled from any source (grain and potatoes being the most common, also industrial cellulose for the cheapest!) but the main characteristic of vodka is that it is so thoroughly distilled as to exhibit none of the flavors derived from its source material. Gin is a similar distillate which has been flavored by contact with herbs and other plant products, especially juniper berries, from which it gets its name.
Last updated: 08-07-2005 20:39:02