Samui Wining & Dining
Here’s The Proof
‘Proving’ the strength of your booze can be more complicated than you think.


Here’s The ProofMany of us will remember having gathered in our youth on Saturday nights for a bit of underage drinking. When you’re 15, alcohol strength or proof becomes Very Important. We’d calculate proof rate against cost against volume with a dedication we never showed in school and one which would have stunned our maths teachers if we’d have been overheard. Once we’d figured out what would give us the biggest return for the least money, even if it was ten per cent lager that tasted like hairspray, we’d hold our noses and chug it down. They were happy, if illegal, times.


But it turns out that the number on the bottle normally refers not to what we used to call ‘proof’, but to alcohol by volume, or abv. Which in turn leads to the term ‘proof’. And proof, to refer to alcohol, was first used in the UK and means 7/4 times the abv. In the USA, proof is defined as twice the percentage of abv, so that a bottle of spirits at 20 per cent abv will then be labelled as 40 per cent proof. The term was used on bottles in the UK until 1980 when it was replaced with abv, and now both the UK and USA require the abv level to be placed on all bottles of alcohol, with legislation in the States also allowing the proof number to be put there too. It really is enough to make you dizzy – before you’ve even had a drink.


Measuring the strength of alcohol in this way dates back to the eighteenth century and it’s not really surprising to learn that it originated in the British Navy with sailors’ rations of rum. Back in those days, sailors got rum as part of their pay and they naturally wanted to make sure they were getting the real deal. So to ‘prove’ that the rum wasn’t watered down, sailors dumped gunpowder in it then tested the powder to see if it would ignite. If it did, the rum was proved; if it didn’t, it had too much water and was ‘under proof’. It turned out that the gunpowder wouldn’t ignite if the percentage of alcohol in it was less than 57 per cent abv. So, anything at this level was called ‘100 degrees proof’.


The proof on all drinks varies widely. Beer can be anything from three to around 12 per cent abv, equating to six to 24 per cent proof. Wine usually starts at nine per cent abv but can go up to 16. Fortified wines, like sherry or port, have a spirit added to them so they come out at around 15-20 per cent abv or 30-40 per cent proof. And spirits or liquors can go up to 90 per cent abv, or 180 proof, not anything you’d want to try more than one measure of.


Probably the most notorious high proof drink is absinthe, the bright green spirit known by the French as la fée verte, or ‘the green fairy’. Absinthe can go up to 74 per cent abv or 148 proof, mostly because it’s made with herbs that need to be bottled at high proof to stop the compounds from deteriorating. Other drinks that produce a very sore head in the morning if over-indulged in are the shot Jaggermeister and the rum Captain Morgan (both 70 per cent proof.


There’s also Everclear, a grain spirit of up to 190 per cent proof named by the Guinness Book of Records, in 1979, as ‘the most alcoholic drink in the world’ and which is banned in several American states, has a rock band named after it and can also be used as an antiseptic or pipe cleaner. Or Rumple Minze, a 100 per cent proof peppermint liqueur and, of course, the Thai rum Sang Som (80 per cent proof).


Several low proof drinks are also coming into favour with drinkers concerned about the high sugar content of alcohol, and some bartenders in Los Angeles now make cocktails with fortified wines rather than spirits to keep the alcohol levels and customer waistlines down.


For beer, anything classed as ‘low alcohol’ in the UK can’t be any more than 2.2 per cent proof, roughly the same level as in Canada, the USA and Australia. For wine, your best bet is to mix a spritzer and add soda water to a low abv wine at around nine per cent. And as for spirits, well, spirits are spirits and often lead to sore heads, but if you really want to try a lower proof one there’s always sake (24 per cent proof) – you are in Asia, after all.


Lisa Cunningham


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