The big brew-haha around here recently was that NC has raised the limit on beer from 6 percent to 15 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). That means beer drinkers can now buy malt beverages like craft beers, ales, lagers and stouts that are stronger and have fuller flavor.
While the new 15 percent ABV limit for beer is a big leap from the former 6 percent limit, the alcohol content of wines has been creeping up over the years. Red wines used to average 12 percent, but now they're pushing 14 percent or higher. "Big" reds like zinfandel (that's red zinfandel, not the pink "white" stuff), with their intense, rich flavors, almost always have a minimum of 14.5 percent alcohol. Even white wines -- generally considered lighter than reds -- are heading toward 13.
Winemakers are required to note alcohol levels on labels, but there's a fudge factor there. Federal regulations allow for a leeway of 1.5 percent, so a wine labeled 12.5 percent alcohol may be up there at 14. This wiggle room lets wineries pay the feds lower taxes -- wines less than 14 percent alcohol fetch $1.07 a gallon in federal taxes, while those between 14 and 21 percent bring a $1.57 per gallon tax.
Adding brandy or another alcohol to wine produces fortified wines, which can have an alcohol content of up to 22 percent. In this category are sherry, port, vermouth and dessert wines. Mad Dog is another fortified wine, but somehow it doesn't have the cachet of sherry or port. "Have some Madeira, m'dear," sounds so much better than "Want another swig (hic)?"
Hard liquor, or "spirits," can really pack a wallop. Light-colored ones like gin, vodka and white rum, may reach 37.5 percent ABV. Scotch, rye and dark rum are even higher than that -- up to around 40 percent. That's nothing when you consider that some tequila has an alcohol content of over 70 percent. ¡Que fuerte!
Almost every other alcoholic beverage has an alcohol content similar to or higher than the new 15 percent beers now allowed in the state, so why did it take so long for sales of high alcohol beer to become legal?
The ABV of various types of beverages covers a pretty wide range, but the alcohol content is considered the same across the board in "standard" size drinks. A standard drink is calculated as:
• One and 1/2-ounces of 80 proof distilled spirits (either straight up or in a mixed drink).
• A 3-ounce glass of fortified wine.
• A 5-ounce glass of red or white wine.
• A 12-ounce serving of beer -- regular beer, that is. Not the super beer we can get in NC now.
If you figure that those higher alcohol content beers have about double the ABV of regular beer, one 12-ounce serving is equivalent to 10 ounces of wine, six ounces of fortified wine or three ounces of distilled liquor. In effect, you're getting a double-whammy with each sip of the newly legal brews. To a breathalyzer, a drink is a drink is a drink. Unless you've been drinking a higher alcohol beer -- then a drink is two drinks. Concern over the ill effects of this stronger brew made it a battle to get the ABV limit raised.
A drink can complement a meal or enhance a social occasion. Too many drinks -- beer, wine or booze -- can have the opposite effect. Control your personal ABV, and you'll be OK.