To a chemist, "alcohol" is an organic compound that includes carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen bonded in a specific arrangement—for example, ethanol (C2H6O). To the average person, however, "alcohol" is shorthand for alcoholic beverages such as wine, beer, whiskey, vodka, tequila, and the like. Alcoholic beverages are a staple of nearly every culture on Earth, save those whose religion restricts alcohol consumption.
The basics of alcoholic beverages
Alcohol is produced by a process called fermentation, in which water and grains, vegetables, or fruits are mixed with yeasts or bacteria, which consume the sugars in the food to produce ethanol and carbon dioxide. Beer and wine are fermented alcohols. "Hard alcohols" such as whiskey, also called "spirits" or "liquors", go through an additional distillation process that removes some of the water, leaving a higher alcohol concentration and more flavor.
Alcohol is a regulated drug, classified as a depressant. Consumed in low amounts, such as one or two glasses of beer or wine, alcohol is often used to "loosen up" and arguably acts as a stimulant. When consumed in larger amounts, however, its depressant effects begin to set in: slowed down motor functions, sluggish reaction times, and dulled or slurred speech.
Alcohol is regulated by laws that establish a minimum drinking age (most commonly 18 or 21, but it varies by country), restrict open carrying of alcohol in public spaces, require liquor licenses for restaurants and stores, and prohibit the operation of motor vehicles while under the influence (drunk driving).
What is "a drink"?
In the United States, a "drink" has 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol. This conveniently corresponds to the amount of alcohol typically contained in the following popular beverages:
- 12 ounces (one can) of beer
- 8 ounces of malt liquor
- 5 ounces (one average glass) of wine
- 1.5 ounces (one shot) of 80-proof (40% alcohol content) distilled spirits or liquor
Alcoholism and the effects of excessive drinking
Alcoholism is a chronic disease characterized by excessive drinking and a preoccupation with alcohol. Rates of alcoholism vary by country and do not necessarily mirror rates of alcoholic consumption. Excessive drinking includes heavy drinking and binge drinking. Heavy drinking is defined as eight or more drinks per week for women and 15 or more drinks per week for men. Binge drinking is defined as consuming, during a single occasion, four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks for men.
Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to several health complications. Arguably most serious are the possible adverse effects on the heart, including high blood pressure, stroke, arrhythmias, and cardiomyopathy. Alcohol can also cause or contribute to liver steatosis (fatty liver), alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis, and cirrhosis. Additionally, alcohol consumption has been linked to head and neck cancer, esophageal cancer, liver cancer, breast cancer, and colorectal cancer. Finally, the impaired judgement and dampened motor skills caused by intoxication can often lead to harmful accidents, particularly when driving.
Alcohol consumption around the world
The consumption of alcohol in each country varies greatly and is affected by each country's laws, culture, and other characteristics. The World Health Organization recorded each country's alcohol consumption in liters of pure alcohol for all beer, wine, spirits, and other alcoholic drinks. For example, one handle of vodka (1.75 liters) contains about 300 milliliters of pure alcohol, and the average 12oz beer or 5oz glass of wine contains roughly 0.6 oz (.0178 liters/17.8 ml) of pure alcohol.
Top 10 Countries with the Highest Alcohol Consumption in 2019 (in liters of pure alcohol per capita):
- Czechia - 14.26
- Latvia - 13.19
- Moldova - 12.85
- Germany - 12.79
- Lithuania - 12.78
- Ireland - 12.75
- Spain - 12.67
- Uganda - 12.48
- Bulgaria - 12.46
- Luxembourg - 12.45
According to the World Health Organization, the citizens of Czechia consumed the most alcohol per capita in 2019, with individuals consuming about 14.26 liters of pure alcohol. Latvia and Moldova follow with 13.19 and 12.85, respectively. The full list (see table below), includes 38 countries with pure alcohol consumption above 10 liters per year. The majority of these countries are located in Europe.
The United States had an annual consumption per person of 9.97 liters of pure alcohol in 2019, but consumption varies by state. This puts the United States at the 39th-highest spot, significantly above the worldwide average of 5.8 liters. The minimum drinking age in the United States is 21 and is strictly enforced in most locations.
Top 10 Countries with the Lowest Alcohol Consumption in 2019 (in liters of pure alcohol per capita):
- Somalia, Bangladesh, Kuwait, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia (5-way tie) - 0.00
- Afghanistan - 0.013
- Libya - 0.027
- Yemen - 0.034
- Egypt - 0.14
- Syrian Arab Republic - 0.19
- Bhutan - 0.21
- Indonesia - 0.22
- Pakistan - 0.31
- Djibouti - 0.36
The predominant religions in the Middle East tend to view alcohol consumption in a negative light, evident in the regions significantly low consumption levels.
Do men or women drink more?
In most countries, men drink at least three times as much alcohol, on average, as women. For example, Czechia's combined average is 14.6 liters, but the per-gender averages are 6.9 liters for women and 22.0 liters for men (both of which are global highs). In some countries, the disparity is even higher. In Turkmenistan, for instance, men drink 5.26 liters/year, more than five times as much as women (1.03 liters/year).