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Types of Alcohol

Anyone who has ever visited a grocery store knows that there are many different types of alcohol. Through the process of distillation, some alcoholic drinks contain more alcohol than others and may be more dangerous.

What is Alcohol?

Humans have been drinking alcohol for thousands of years. Alcohol is both a chemical and a psychoactive drug. In chemistry, an alcohol exists when a hydroxy group, a pair of oxygen and hydrogen atoms, replaces the hydrogen atom in a hydrocarbon. Alcohols bind with other atoms to create secondary alcohols. These secondary alcohols are the three types of alcohol that humans use every day: methanol, isopropanol, and ethanol.

The Three Types of Alcohol

The only type of alcohol that humans can safely drink is ethanol. We use the other two types of alcohol for cleaning and manufacturing, not for making drinks. For example, methanol (or methyl alcohol) is a component in fuel for cars and boats. It’s also used to manufacture antifreeze, paint remover, windshield wiper fluid, and many other products. Isopropanol (or isopropyl alcohol) is the chemical name for rubbing alcohol, which we use for cleaning and disinfecting. Both methanol and isopropanol are poisonous to humans because our bodies metabolize them as toxic substances which cause liver failure. Drinking even a small amount of methanol or rubbing alcohol can be fatal.

Ethanol (or ethyl alcohol) is the type of alcohol that over two billion people drink every day. This type of alcohol is produced by the fermentation of yeast, sugars, and starches. For centuries, people have consumed ethanol-based drinks, such as beer and wine, to change the way that they feel. However, ethanol also has harmful effects on the body. The human liver can metabolize ethanol, but only in limited quantities.

Ethanol is toxic, so it damages the liver, the brain, and other organs over time. Ethanol also inhibits the central nervous system,  thereby impairing coordination and judgment. Additionally, binge drinking and other forms of alcohol abuse can cause a person to develop debilitating alcohol addiction.

Distilled and Undistilled Alcohol

There are two categories of alcoholic beverages: distilled and undistilled. Undistilled drinks are also called fermented drinks. Fermentation is the process by which bacteria or yeast chemically converts sugar into ethanol. Wine and beer are both fermented, undistilled alcoholic beverages. Wineries ferment grapes to make wine and breweries ferment barley, wheat, and other grains to make beer.

Distillation is a process which follows fermentation. The process converts a fermented substance into one with an even higher concentration of alcohol. Distillation concentrates alcohol by separating it from the water and other components of a fermented substance. Liquors and spirits are distilled alcoholic beverages. They contain more alcohol by volume than undistilled drinks. In general, a distilled alcoholic beverage will have a higher alcohol proof.

Alcohol by volume (ABV) and alcohol proof are two measures of alcohol content, or the concentration of alcohol in a drink. Alcohol by volume is the number of milliliters of ethanol per 100 milliliters (or 3.4 fl.oz.) in a solution, while alcohol proof is twice the percentage of alcohol by volume. For example, a drink which has 50% ABV will be 100 proof.

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