What is alcohol?

Drinking alcohol is a pretty popular social activity, but not many people know what alcohol is made of and how it’s classified. As well as knowing what’s in alcohol, it can be helpful to find out about the effect of alcohol and how alcohol is measured in standard drinks. These can all help with safe alcohol consumption.

This can help if:

  • You want to know about the different types of alcohol
  • You want to know about the effects of alcohol 
  • What want to know what a 'standard drink' is
group toasting glasses

Types of alcohol

There are three major types of alcohol:

  • Beer: It’s prepared by brewing and fermenting grains, then flavouring the mixture with hops, a flower that gives beer its bitterness. The alcohol content of beer usually ranges from 4% to 6% alcohol by volume.
  • Wine: It’s made using fermented fruits (usually grapes). Wine is completely fermented and has a long ageing process, which leads it to having an alcohol content of around 9% to 16%. 
  • Spirits: A product of both fermentation and distillation. Spirits are stronger alcohols and can have an alcohol content of above 20%.

What’s the effect of alcohol?

Many people think that alcohol is a ‘stimulant’ as it can give people feelings of confidence and fearlessness. However, alcohol is actually classified as a 'depressant drug', which basically means that it slows down the actions of the central nervous system in your body.  If you feel confident or fearless when you drink alcohol, it’s because the alcohol impacts on your brain’s ‘warning system’ which helps you monitor your behaviour.

Alcohol's classification as a depressant has a lot to do with how your body reacts to the drug. One effect of alcohol is that it lowers your heart and breathing rates. It also slows down the time it takes for a person to respond to things, which often results in being uncoordinated, having slower reflexes and making poor decisions.

What is a standard drink?

In Australian bars, clubs and pubs, alcohol should be served in what’s called a ‘standard drink’. This helps people work out how much they’re drinking, and can make it a bit easier to control the amount of alcohol a person is drinking in one session.

One standard drink contains 10 grams of pure alcohol which can be a small, strong shot or a large, weaker drink.

Some examples of a standard drink include:

  • One 425 ml schooner of light beer (2.7% alcohol)
  • One 285 ml middy of regular beer (4.9% alcohol)
  • One 100 ml glass of wine (12% alcohol)
  • One 30 ml nip of spirits (40% alcohol)
  • One 60 ml glass of port or sherry (20% alcohol)

It’s important to remember that the size of drinks served at some places, particularly at parties or home, can have more alcohol than the defined standard drink. Cocktails and party punch can have up to six standard drinks, so even though they may look like one drink they actually contain a whole lot more.

What can I do now?

  • Practice responsible drinking.
  • Drink water in between alcoholic drinks.
  • Always have a safe plan to get home.
Last reviewed: 05 November, 2015
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