Alcohol proof is a measure of the content of ethanol (alcohol) in an alcoholic beverage. The term was originally used in England and was equal to about 1.821 times the percentage alcohol by volume (ABV). The UK now uses the ABV standard instead of alcohol proof. In the United States, alcohol proof is defined as twice the percentage of ABV.
The measurement of alcohol content and the statement of content on bottles of alcoholic beverages is regulated by law in many countries. In 1972, Canada phased out the use of "proof"; in 1973, the European Union followed suit; finally, the UK, where the concept originated, transitioned to solely using ABV in 1980. The US code mandates the use of ABV but stipulates how a proof measurement may also be used.
The term proof dates back to 16th century England, when spirits were taxed at different rates depending on their alcohol content. Similar terminology and methodology spread to other nations as spirit distillation, and taxation, became common. In England spirits were originally tested with a basic "burn-or-no-burn" test, in which alcohol that would ignite was said to be "above proof" and alcohol which would not was said to be "under proof". The breakpoint between under and over proof was defined as 100 and was the basis for taxation. Because alcohol's flammability is highly dependent on temperature, 100 proof defined this way could range anywhere from 40 to 90% ABV in normal air temperatures; at 22 °C (72 °F) 100 proof would be 60% ABV.
Another early method for testing liquor's alcohol content was the "gunpowder method." Gunpowder was soaked in a spirit, and if the gunpowder could still burn the spirit was rated above proof. This test relies on the fact that potassium nitrate (a chemical in gunpowder) is significantly more soluble in water than in alcohol. While less influenced by temperature than the simpler burn-or-no-burn test, gunpowder tests also lacked true reproducibility. Factors like the grain size of gunpowder and the time it sat in the spirit impact the dissolution of potassium nitrate and therefore what would be defined as 100 proof. However, the gunpowder method is significantly less variable than the burn-or-no-burn method and 100 proof defined by it is traditionally defined as 57.15% ABV.
By the end of the 17th century England had introduced tests based on specific gravity for defining proof. However, it was not until 1816 that a legal standard based on specific density was defined in England. 100 proof was defined as a spirit with 12⁄13 the specific gravity of pure water at the same temperature. From the 19th century until 1 January 1980, the UK officially measured alcohol content by proof spirit, defined as spirit with a gravity of 12⁄13 that of water, or 923 kg/m3 (1,556 lb/cu yd), and equivalent to 57.15% ABV.
The value 57.15% is very close to the fraction 4⁄7 ≈ 0.5714. This led to the definition that 100 proof spirit has an ABV of 4⁄7. From this it follows that, to convert the ABV expressed as a percentage to degrees proof, it is only necessary to multiply the ABV by 7⁄4. Thus pure 100% alcohol will have 100×(7⁄4) = 175 proof, and a spirit containing 40% ABV will have 40×(7⁄4) = 70° proof.
The proof system in the United States was established around 1848 and was based on percent alcohol rather than specific gravity. 50% alcohol by volume was defined as 100 proof. Note that this is different from 50% volume fraction (expressed as a percentage); the latter does not take into account change in volume on mixing, whereas the former does. To make 50% ABV from pure alcohol, one would take 50 parts of alcohol and dilute to 100 parts of solution with water, all the while mixing the solution. To make 50% alcohol by volume fraction, one would take 50 parts alcohol and 50 parts water, measured separately, and then mix them together. The resulting volume will not be 100 parts, but between 96 and 97 parts, since the smaller water molecules can take up some of the space between the larger alcohol molecules (cf. Volume change).
The use of proof as a measure of alcohol content is now mostly historical. Today liquor is sold in most locations with labels that state its alcohol content as a percentage of alcohol by volume (ABV).
The European Union (EU) follows recommendations of the International Organization of Legal Metrology (OIML). OIML's International Recommendation No. 22 (1973) provides standards for measuring alcohol strength by volume and by mass. A preference for one method over the other is not stated in the document, but if alcohol strength by volume is used, it must be expressed as a percentage (%) of total volume, and the water/alcohol mixture must have a temperature of 20 °C (68 °F) when measurement is done. The document does not address alcohol proof or the labeling of bottles.
Since 1 January 1980, the United Kingdom has used the ABV standard to measure alcohol content, as prescribed by the European Union.
In common with other EU countries, on 1 January 1980, Britain adopted the system of measurement recommended by the International Organisation of Legal Metrology, a body with all sovereign states as its members. The OIML system measures alcohol strength as a percentage of alcohol by volume at a temperature of 293.15 K [20.00 °C; 68.00 °F]. It replaced the Sikes system of measuring proof of spirits, which had been used in Britain for over 160 years.
Britain, which used to use the Sikes scale to display proof, now uses the European scale set down by the International Organization of Legal Metrology (OIML). This scale was adopted by all the countries in the European Community in 1980. Using the OIML scale is the same as measuring alcohol by volume except that the figures in the latter case are expressed in degrees, not percentages and measured at a temperature of 288.15 K [15.00 °C; 59.00 °F].
In the United States, alcohol content is specified as ABV percentage. For bottled spirits over 100 ml (3.5 imp fl oz; 3.4 US fl oz) containing no solids, actual alcohol content is allowed to vary within 0.15% of ABV stated on the label. Proof (the term "degrees proof" is not used), defined as twice the percentage of alcohol by volume, may also be stated. For example, whiskey may be labeled as containing 50% alcohol by volume, and also as 100-proof; 86-proof whiskey contains 43% alcohol.
The Code of Federal Regulations (27 CFR [4-1-03 Edition] §5.37 Alcohol content) requires that liquor labels must state the percentage of ABV. The regulation permits, but does not require, a statement of the proof provided that it is printed close to the ABV number.
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The concept of a standard or normative 'proof' strength was operative in Britain from the early days of the burn-or-no-burn tests. It paralleled the normative concepts of applied to brewing...
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