Monday, February 20, 2023

A Standard Drink is not what you think it is

In last week’s post (Health and the wine drinker, yet again), I noted that a human liver is often claimed to metabolize circa one “standard drink” per hour, on average. Indeed, this idea of a “standard drink” tends to be the most common way in which the medical profession discusses such topics, and therefore also the way that governments tend to legislate.

There is only one main problem with this approach — there are many, many different definitions of a “standard drink” around the world. That is, the amount of alcohol (technically: ethanol) contained in a “standard drink” varies between countries. This obviously confounds all discussions of wine and health.

So, let’s have a look at the idea of a Standard Drink, here. I concentrate on wine, of course, but it also applies to any other alcoholic beverage.

As I said, different countries define standard drinks differently (or their governments do) — this does not surprise you even slightly, does it? Moreover, a standard drink is often different from the normal serving size in the country in which the drink is served. This blatant contradiction helps exacerbate potential confusion. *

As an aid, I have compiled the following table from various online sources (eg. Standard drink; Standard drink measures in Europe), which (sadly) sometimes contradict each other. So, there is nothing definitive about this list, but it will give you a reasonable idea of the current global situation.

No. of
grams of
Countries using that definition for their Standard Drink
 8 Iceland, United Kingdom
10 Australia, Croatia, Estonia, France, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Malta, Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain
11 Germany
12 Denmark, Finland, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg, Norway, Romania, Sweden, Switzerland
13.5 Canada
14 Hungary, United States
16 Czech Republic, Greece
20 Austria

Note the massive variation in the values that have been chosen, with the highest being 2.5 times the lowest. (Remember: lower values are more strict.) However, a recommended mass of 10—11 grams of alcohol covers most of the countries. You will also note that the United States of America is 40% higher than this— such leniency often seems to be the case; and I doubt that it is accidental, when it happens!

Based on these data, we can now consider the important practical consideration: how many standard drinks are there per normal bottle of wine? Obviously, this differs depending on the definition of a standard drink, as well as on the amount of alcohol in the bottle (%ABV). So, in the next table I have listed the number of drinks for a series of different %ABV, for both the common definition (10 g of alcohol per drink) and the US definition (14 g of alcohol per drink), as contained within a full 750 ml bottle of wine.

ABV (%)  No. drinks No. US drinks
 4.7 3.4
 9  5.3 3.8
10  5.9 4.2
10.5  6.2 4.4
11  6.5 4.6
11.5  6.8 4.9
12  7.1 5.1
12.5  7.4 5.3
13  7.7 5.5
13.5  8.0 5.7
14  8.3 5.9
14.5  8.6 6.1
15  8.9 6.3

As you can see, it varies quite a lot. You certainly can’t make too much in the way of generalizations — and you need to keep this in mind when you read an article published in a different country to your own. So, you need to read the label carefully, before you decide how many drinks there are, wherever you live — most labels should contain the information, by law.

There are also online calculators to help you, for example for the USA (Standard drink calculator) and for Australia (Drinks calculator).

This leads to the obvious question about how the government recommendations for safe alcohol consumption differ between countries. I am not going into details here; but the VinePair site has a very useful infographic, for quite a number of countries (Here’s how much alcohol your government says you can drink).

Such formal recommendations are based on various health considerations, of course. For example: What does alcohol do to the body? and How long does alcohol stay in your system? As examples for the USA:
  • For men, consuming four or fewer drinks in a single day, and less than 14 during a given week, is considered to be low–risk drinking (Standard drinks: how much alcohol is in your beverage?). This is equivalent to sharing a wine bottle per day, every second day.
  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heavy drinking is defined as consuming eight or more drinks per week for women, and 15 or more drinks per week for men. This is different to binge drinking, which the CDC defines as consuming five or more drinks on one occasion for men, or four or more drinks on one occasion for women.
Is this drinking situation becoming more serious in the modern world? The answer will be “yes”, if wines become more alcoholic, on average. In this regard, Liv–ex has indicated that Alcohol levels in wine are rising. and here’s the proof:
Our analysis is based on 13,120 ABV data points that have been verified by the Liv-ex warehouse team when handling bottles. As the data show, red wines from California, Piedmont and Tuscany saw a significant increase in alcohol levels from the 1990s to the 2000s, when they leveled off or began to pull back slightly.
No-one has said that legally drinking wine was meant to be easy!

* This is further confounded by drink–driving laws (ie. “driving under the influence”), which also differ greatly between countries (see Drunk driving law by country).


  1. You make some very good and important points but living in the USA means practically our standard drink is most relevant. Drinkers should pay attention to ABV as alcohol percentage makes a difference when looking to drink in moderation (consumers rarely look at the ABV). It should be noted that one standard drink (5 oz of wine) looks very different depending on the size (capacity) and shape of the wine glass which consumers can find deceiving. See William Gaffney MD

    1. Indeed, what people see is very subjective, and so reading the label is a much better idea than simply looking at the glass.

  2. I think your last chart should be inverted. If e.g. the wine is 15% ABV, the number of drinks in a 750 should be fewer than if it's 8%.

    1. Indeed, it could be done that way. However, my mind worked this way!

    2. It seems to me that the last chart presumes a "standard drink". So the higher the ABV, the smaller the volume of a standard drink. The smaller the volume of a standard drink, the larger number of glasses of wine from a 750 ml bottle. Therfore the chart makes sense as is.

  3. Yes but the mass weight of a person from a 6’2 make us different than a 5’2 woman

    1. Absolutely, and this makes a big difference for the effect. Racial differences also have an effect, as does age. Government legislation, unfortunately, never takes this sort of thing into account.

    2. Since Race doesn’t actually exist, it is irrelevant. However there certainly are variations in genetic populations. Native Americans and Japanese ancestry tends to create a metabolism that processed alcohol slowly. Italian ancestry tends to provide genes that process alcohol more efficiently.

      The other factors of big import are gender, there are sex linked metabolism differences, and lean body mass. A 150 lb and 300 lb person may have the same lean body mass.
      Paul Vandenberg
      Paradisos del Sol