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ABV Meaning: What Is ABV?

By
Brad Johnson
Table of Contents

Anyone who works on bar staff or in restaurant operations knows that it’s important to understand different types of alcohol. Given the legal limitations of alcohol consumption and how powerful a few drinks can be, bar owners should strive to keep their staff educated. 

One such topic to keep employees educated on is ABV. You may have heard this acronym before, especially if you’re been working in the hospitality industry for years. 

So, what is ABV? What does it stand for, and why is it important to know as a bartender? Let’s take a closer look here.

ABV: Alcohol by Volume

ABV stands for alcohol by volume, which refers to the percentage of a drink that is pure alcohol. It’s a standard of measurement used to determine how alcoholic a beverage is, which makes it easier to teach basic bartending drinks

ABV is useful for several reasons. One, it states the alcohol strength of a beverage. This information is necessary when creating a cocktail or fulfilling a customer request. 

Two, it indicates how a drink will taste. Beverages with higher ABV will be harsher on the tongue because of their stronger alcohol content. You also rarely need a bitters recipe for drinks with high ABV levels. 

Three, it helps bartenders keep their patrons safe. The higher the ABV content, the more likely a drink will lead to intoxication. A bartender takes notice of the drinks being ordered and those drinks’ corresponding ABV levels. If a customer consumes too many drinks with high ABV content and becomes intoxicated, the bartender must refuse them further service. 

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What Is ABV?

Alcohol by volume, or ABV, is the volume of pure alcohol in a given alcoholic beverage. In other words, it’s the degree to which a drink is ethanol versus water. The higher the ethanol content, the higher the ABV. If you don't already have the ABV of a beverage, you can use an ABV calculator to determine it.

Though the ABV of each drink differs, a common ABV level is between 5 to 12%. Beer is at the lower end of the spectrum, with 5 to 6% ABV being common. Wine ABVs are higher, ranging anywhere from 12 to 18% on average.

Unfortified wines can have an ABV as low as 5.5% and fortified wines can reach ABVs as high as 25%. You can find types of white wine and red wine types that are fortified, like port and sherry. 

The difference between unfortified and fortified wine is the former don’t have additional alcohol added to them, whereas the latter have liquor added to them, like brandy. This makes the wine sweeter and more applicable for certain meals. 

Distilled spirits and liquor have the highest average ABVs, such as whiskey, rum, vodka, gin, and tequila. Many spirits have 35-40% ABV or more. 

ABVs of Common Bar and Restaurant Drinks

When you’re learning what a standardized recipe and a standard pour for cocktails is, common drink ABVs are a key factor to include. Below is a list of common restaurant and bar drinks and their ABVs: 

Types of Alcohol / Drinks:

Type of Drink

Alcohol By Volume

Beer

4-8% ABV

Unfortified Wine

12-16% ABV

Fortified Wine

16-25% ABV

Whiskey

36-50% ABV

Tequila

50-51% ABV

Bourbon

40% ABV

Fine Liqueurs

15% ABV

Gin

36-50% ABV

Vodka

40-95% ABV

Rum

36-50% ABV

Amaretto Sour

22% ABV

Bloody Mary

12% ABV

Imported Stout Beer

6% ABV

Specific Alcohol Brands: 

Type of Drink

Alcohol By Volume

Everclear

75-95% ABV

Bacardi 151

75% ABV

Malibu

24% ABV

Absolut

40% ABV

Dos Equis

5% ABV

Canadian Mist

40% ABV

Irish Cream

17% ABV

Sambuca

40% ABV

Yukon Jack

50% ABV

Cointreau

40% ABV

Southern Comfort

35% ABV

Rumple Minze

50% ABV

German Schnapps

20-40% ABV

Now that you have this information handy, it’s easier to know what suits specific cocktails. Perhaps you’re doing menu engineering for fall cocktails and need to stock new rum. Or, maybe you’re planning spring cocktails and are looking for a good bourbon. 

Referencing the typical ABV is further insight into whether or not it will work for your recipe. If you need a little more punch, you can choose a brand with higher ABV. If you’re going for sweet and light, opt for a brand with lower ABV. 

As a bar owner or employee, you should also keep several kinds of alcohol on hand each day. You never know who’s going to prefer a mimosa or Irish coffee over vodka and tequila. Vodka is often seen as the best alcohol for shots because it has a relatively high ABV but isn't too strong. By having different base liquors available at a moment’s notice, you can keep customers happy throughout the entire week. 

Inventory variety is similar to par stock, which is the amount of each product you need to meet ongoing demand each day. Par stock allows you to serve your usual number of customers without having excess inventory or relying too heavily on just in time inventory

Frequently Asked Questions About ABV Meaning

Whether you just opened your bar, have been serving customers for several months, there’s a lot of industry terminology to learn. One of those terms is ABV, and it’s a particularly practical phrase to be familiar with. 

If you still have questions about ABV after reading this article, you’re in luck. We reviewed the most commonly asked questions about ABV and answered them below: 

What Does 40% Alcohol By Volume Mean?

40% alcohol by volume (ABV) means that 40% of the drink’s liquid content is alcohol. The ABV of a drink is determined by measuring how much sugar was originally in the drink that has now been converted to alcohol by the yeast. 

The rest of the drink is water, which is partly what prevents most beverages from being pure alcohol. As a case in point, wine alcohol content is normally around 12%. That being said, there are some drinks like tequila and vodka that have much higher ABV. 

What Is A High ABV?

While it would be easy to have an ABV level that applies to all drinks, no such number exists. This is because ABV is relative to the drink in question. 

A high ABV for beer is going to differ from high ABVs for liquor. Beer with an ABV greater than 8% is high for beer, but with liquor it can be all over the place. For example, gin is a little lower on the scale at about 36-50% ABV, whereas vodka can be close to 95% ABV in some cases. 

Is ABV The Same As Proof?

No; ABV and proof are related terms, but they mean different things. ABV is the amount of alcohol by volume in a drink; proof is the ABV multiplied by two. 

Proof is a term hailing from the 16th century when the English government taxed certain types of alcohol more. If the alcohol could be poured into gunpowder and the wet gunpowder could then be lit, this was deemed a “proof” spirit. These types of alcohol incurred higher taxes, and the term has stuck around ever since. 

ABC? Nah, More Like ABV

Learning how to use ABV is a useful step in your bartending, hospitality, or restaurant management career. Primarily, it indicates how strong an alcoholic beverage is, but secondarily keeps your customers safer. After all, the last thing you want is to be held liable for serving more alcohol to an already intoxicated customer.

Use average ABVs to guide your use of popular cocktails, inventory practices, and daily customer service. When you aren't sure how strong a drink is, check the numbers here so you can make the right choice.