10 Mind-blowing Alcohol Facts

By: Patrick J. Kiger  | 
alcohol facts
People gather at a bar in New York to celebrate the end of the Prohibition in 1933. Imagno/Getty Images

Drinking has been so widespread throughout history that Patrick McGovern, an archaeological chemist at the University of Pennsylvania, called it "a universal language" in an Economist article. Indeed, you're hard-pressed to find a culture or event in history that alcohol (or lack of it) didn't feature in some way.

In a sense, alcoholic beverages are just a simple matter of chemistry and physiology. When yeast cells consume carbohydrates in grains, vegetables or fruits, they produce a fluid called ethyl alcohol. The latter, when ingested by humans, is converted into a chemical called acetaldehyde, and then eventually broken down into carbon dioxide and water. While ethyl alcohol is toxic in large enough doses, in more moderate quantities it merely relaxes the muscles and stimulates the brain by depressing inhibitions [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica].


But that explanation hardly does justice to a substance that people have been eagerly producing and consuming since the dawn of human civilization. The ancient Sumerians, who lived 4,500 years ago, even worshipped a goddess, Ninkasi, who ruled over the brewing and distributing of beer to the populace. In a royal tomb, we find figures sucking brew with straws out of what resembles a modern beer keg [source: Gately]. Who knew?

In that spirit (pardon the pun), here are 10 fascinating facts about alcohol that will enrich your cocktail conversations.

10: Wine Was Invented Before the Wheel

alcohol facts
A mural in the ancient Egyptian tomb of Userhet showing scribes recording the jars of newly made wine, circa 1550-1295 B.C.E. Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

It's not clear precisely when our ancient ancestors started imbibing, but most likely, ancient hunter-gatherers discovered the effects of alcohol when they found and ate fruit that had dropped to the ground and fermented. Humans liked that tipsy feeling so much that when they switched to being farmers and living in stable communities, they started trying to make the stuff deliberately.

Archaeological chemist Patrick McGovern analyzed shards of clay from a 9,000-year-old Chinese village and found that they contained chemical traces of mead, a wine made from honey. The ancient beverage had an alcohol content of 10 percent [sources: Thadeusz, Gately].


Meanwhile, the potter's wheel wasn't invented until 3,500 years later in Mesopotamia, and wheeled chariots weren't developed until probably 300 years after that [source: Gambino]. So we know, at least, that the earliest mead drinkers didn't have to worry about finding designated drivers.

9: A Beer Was Once Made From Antarctic Ice

alcohol facts
Perhaps an iceberg like this one in the Antarctic Peninsula provided the water for Antarctic Nail Ale. Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

If you're a beer aficionado, you're probably familiar with brands of brew whose makers tout them as being made with mountain spring water or some other exotic ingredient. But in 2010, Nail Brewing, an Australian company, found a way to top all that. It created a limited-edition batch of beer using water made from melted Antarctic ice. The latter had been brought back by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an activist group that had staged an anti-whaling campaign in the Southern (Antarctic) Ocean.

But you couldn't buy Antarctic Nail Ale at your local bottle shop. It was auctioned off at hefty prices of up to $1,850 Australian dollars (nearly $1,614) a bottle, with the proceeds going to the conservation group [source: Simpson].


8: Tequila Only Can Come From Mexico

alcohol facts
These blue agave plants grow in a plantation for tequila production in Amatitan, Mexico. Thanks to a winning international sales strategy, tequila has ceased to be a 'bricklayer's drink' in Mexico and has become fashionable all over the world. Refugio Ruiz/Getty Images

According to Mexican law (which the U.S. honors), the famously fiery beverage must contain at least 51 percent liquor distilled from the sweet nectar of blue agave. That desert plant grown primarily in Jalisco, though four other Mexican states also are allowed to legally produce tequila. The name comes from the Ticuila Indians of Jalisco [sources: Humphrey, Handley].

When South African distillers started making their own version of the beverage in the early 2000s, using a plant similar to agave, Mexico didn't like the idea of being undercut. Its diplomats used international trade agreements to prevent South African companies from calling their product tequila. Instead, they were compelled to market it as "Agava" [source: Associated Press].


7: Wine Doesn't Necessarily Get Better With Age

alcohol facts
The weather conditions during the year a wine is bottled are more important to its flavor than the actual date. David Silverman/Getty Images

For someone who isn't steeped in wine knowledge, it's easy to listen to wine buffs talk about the vintage of various wines — that is, the year in which they were bottled — and assume that the older a wine is, the better. But that's not how it works. The most important thing about vintage is the particular year itself — what the weather conditions were back then, and what impact they might have had upon the grape harvest and the quality of the wine produced from it.

As for age, that's more often a negative than a positive, according to wine writer Giles Kime. "The vast majority of wines — particularly whites — become increasingly dull and flaccid with age," he writes in his book "Secrets of Wine: Insider Secrets into the Real World of Wine." Only a few high-quality reds and some Champagnes improve over time — "and even that is very much a matter of personal taste."


Apart from those exceptions, wines generally should be consumed within a year or two of bottling.

6: The U.S. Government Used to Poison Alcohol

alcohol facts
The New York City deputy police commissioner (right) watches agents pour liquor into a sewer following a raid during the height of Prohibition. The U.S. government also poisoned liquor to discourage illicit drinking. Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

During Prohibition in the 1920s, the U.S. federal government tried to outlaw the sale of booze, wine and beer, and that didn't go over very well. By mid-decade, officials in the administration of President Calvin Coolidge were frustrated because so many Americans continued to drink bootlegged alcohol. They decided upon a devious — or rather, murderous — tactic. Knowing that millions of gallons of industrial alcohol were being stolen by bootleggers and used to make beverages, they ordered manufacturers in 1926 to add poisons such as formaldehyde, chloroform and methyl alcohol to their products.

Quickly, illicit drinkers began dying in droves, and the toll became so shocking that New York City medical examiner actually held a press conference to warn the public about the plot. "The United States government must be charged with the moral responsibility for the deaths that poisoned liquor causes, although it cannot be held legally responsible," he railed.


It did little good. Four hundred people died in New York alone from poisoned booze, and the following year, the death toll climbed to 700. The fiendish deterrent program didn't stop until Prohibition was repealed in December 1933 [source: Blum].

5: Studies Show That Abstaining Is Riskier to Health Than Drinking

alcohol facts
Studies show that a little liquor is actually good for you. Frank Hammerschmidt/picture alliance via Getty Images

For decades, we've all heard the warnings about how excessive drinking can turn your liver into Swiss cheese, and cause all sorts of other awful physical woes as well. But when scientists actually got around to studying the death rates of drinkers and non-drinkers, they made a startling discovery. For reasons that aren't entirely clear, abstaining from drinking actually tends to increase your risk of dying.

In a study published in 2010 in the scientific journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, University of Texas at Austin psychologist Charles Holahan found that over a 20-year period, 69 percent of abstainers died. That actually was higher than the 60 percent death rate for heavy drinkers. But the longest-lived group among the 1,824 study participants was composed of moderate drinkers, only 41 percent of whom died in that period. Holahan and his co-researchers did a model controlling for former problem drinking, existing health problems and other factors. They found that even after the adjustments, "abstainers and heavy drinkers continued to show increased mortality risks of 51 and 45 percent, respectively, compared to moderate drinkers" [sources: Holahan, Cloud].


Other studies have painted a more complicated picture.

A study published in 2013 in Population Research Policy Review, for example, found that the reasons why someone drinks or doesn't drink may affect mortality [source: Rogers, et al].

And another study, this one out of Germany, published Nov. 2, 2021 in the journal PLOS Medicine, indicated that "the majority of the alcohol abstainers at baseline were former alcohol consumers and had risk factors that increased the likelihood of early death. Former alcohol use disorders, risky alcohol drinking, ever having smoked tobacco daily, and fair to poor health were associated with early death among alcohol abstainers."

Even so, the consensus seems to be that light drinking is associated with the lowest health risks, while heavy drinking is still dangerous [source: Shmerling].

4: Diet Mixers in Cocktails Get You Drunk Faster

alcohol facts
If you use a diet soda in a mixed drink, beware: The lack of sugar makes the alcohol absorb faster into your bloodstream. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

People who are worried about gaining weight from the empty calories in booze might try to compensate by using diet soda when they make a seven-and-seven or a rum and Coke. But there's a catch that could land you in the drunk tank.

In a study published in 2013 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, researchers from Northern Kentucky University reported that drinkers who consumed artificially sweetened mixers had a significantly higher breath-alcohol reading than those who used mixers containing sugar, which apparently slows the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream. Worse yet, "individuals were unaware of these differences, a factor that may increase the safety risks associated with drinking alcohol," the scientists noted [sources: Marczinski and Stamates, Eldred].


3: Whiskey Starts Out Clear

alcohol facts
That lovely amber color you see in whiskey is actually added to the clear liquid. Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

Part of the ambiance of whiskey is that rich amber color that reminds you that you're drinking something that was carefully aged for years, like a prized pair of Levis or a tweed jacket that you've adorned with leather elbow patches as the fabric frayed.

But you might be surprised to learn that the color actually is added on, in the same fashion. Ethyl alcohol is clear, and so are most varieties of whiskey at the start. But after distilling, the liquor is aged in oak casks that have been air-dried for nine months and then heated on the inside to give the wood a charred "red layer" that is rich in wood sugars and caramelized tannin. Those chemicals, when they're absorbed by the whiskey, change its taste and give it the amber color [source: Waldman].


2: Americans Once Drank More Alcohol Than Water

alcohol facts
People in the 1600s could sure put away the booze. Here, it's poured into one drinker, while another one vomits on the ground. From the series "Sixteen Peasant Subjects" by 17th-century artist Cornelis Bloemaert. Heritage Images/Getty Images

Early Americans would be shocked by the current level of alcohol consumption in the nation — because it's so much less than they used to drink. In the 1600s and 1700s, many Americans saw alcohol not just as a pleasant diversion, but as a miraculous medicine that could cure illnesses, strengthen the weak and pep up old people. As a result, they often started the day with a liquor pick-me-up and then consumed more alcohol steadily throughout the day, sometimes finishing with several rounds at a tavern in the evening.

In 1790, according to federal government data, the average American over the age of 15 consumed the following over a year [source: Crews]:


  • 34 gallons (129 liters) of beer and cider
  • 5 gallons (19 liters) of whiskey or other distilled spirits
  • 1 gallon (4 liters) of wine

In 2020, however, the typical American drank over the course of the year:

  • About 26.1 gallons (98 liters) of beer and cider [source: NWBA]
  • 2.3 gallons (8 liters) of spirits [source: Vinepair]
  • 3.09 gallons of wine (11 liters) [source: Conway]

Part of the reason for the heavy consumption back then was that water was often unsafe to drink. Even though this was more of a problem in Europe, the earliest settlers followed the example of their European forebears who were used to substituting beer or wine for water. One of the few liquor naysayers in Colonial times was physician Benjamin Rush, who developed the theory that alcoholism was a disease, but hardly anyone listened to him [source: Crews].

1: White Wine Can Be Made From Red Grapes

alcohol facts
This Cahors white wine was made with the red grapes pictured, in Cahors, France. AFP/Stringer/Getty Images

The wordy wine snob portrayed by Paul Giamatti in the movie "Sideways" probably could have expounded on this fact at length, but for those of us who think of fine wine as anything that doesn't come with a screw top, it probably comes as a surprise. You can make white wine from red grapes. Champagne, for example, is made from pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes (both red grapes) as well as chardonnay, and the three types of grapes are often blended.

All grape juice, which comes from the inside of the grapes, starts out as white. It's the skin that contains the red pigment. If the juice is squeezed out of the grapes and separated quickly from the skins, it remains white. By contrast, if winemakers are producing a red wine, they allow the juice to remain in contact with the red skins during fermentation. This causes the wine to become dark [source: Crosariol].

Alcohol Facts FAQ

What is an interesting fact about alcohol?
Alcohol -- wine, specifically -- was actually invented before the wheel
What is the world's most popular alcohol?
Vodka is the most popular type of alcohol worldwide.
How bad is alcohol for your body?
Alcohol can actually harm your body in numerous ways. Drinking regularly can cause liver damage, cause heart weakness or arrhythmia, and even increase your risk for certain cancers, to name just a few harmful effects.
What does alcohol do to your mind?
Alcohol can have a number of different effects on the mind. It can cause some good to happen, like the release of dopamine and increased relaxation. However, it can also have many negative effects, like impairing your reasoning and memory, disorientation and confusion, and even stupor.
Does alcohol kill your body?
Alcohol poisoning and alcoholism can both lead to death. Drinking can have deadly effects if you consume too much of it, either in a short period of time or over the long term.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 Mind-blowing Alcohol Facts

When I was a young I worked in the newspaper business, where being able to hold your liquor once was considered a skill as integral to rising in the profession as being able to scribble pithy quotes into a notepad at a crime scene and then dictate a front-page story in 30 minutes from a pay-phone booth. I was never too good at that last part, but I tried to make up for it by closing down my share of smoke-filled bars and after-hours, as I tried to soak up whatever wisdom sprang from the boozy lips of my journalistic mentors, or maybe pick up a tip uttered by some inebriated lawyer, cop or politician.

But for me at least, that world vanished long ago, replaced by one in which I rise early, exercise, gulp down several strong cups of Vietnamese coffee and then sit down at a computer in home office to make Skype calls and pound out a seemingly endless stream of articles for various websites. I pretty much abstained from alcohol for years, though recently I've been allowing myself a shot of Wild Turkey bourbon on the rocks some evenings, as a reminisce about that vanished world that I grew up in.

Related Articles

  • Associated Press. "First Tequila from Outside Mexico." Today.com. Nov. 13, 2003. (Mar. 22, 2022) http://www.today.com/id/3076145/ns/today-entertainment/t/first-tequila-outside-mexico/#.VCYlrPldV8F
  • Blum, Deborah. "The Chemist's War." Slate. Feb. 19, 2010. (Mar. 22, 2022) http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/medical_examiner/2010/02/the_chemists_war.html
  • Brenan, Megan. "U.S. Alcohol Consumption on Low End of Recent Readings. " Gallup.com. Aug. 19, 2021. (Mar. 22, 2022) https://news.gallup.com/poll/353858/alcohol-consumption-low-end-recent-readings.aspx
  • Cloud, John. "Why Do Heavy Drinkers Outlive Nondrinkers?" Time. Aug. 30, 2010. (Mar. 22, 2022) http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2017200,00.html
  • Conway, Jan. "U.S. Wine Market - Statistics & Facts." Nov. 5, 2021 (Mar. 25, 2022). Statista. https://www.statista.com/topics/1541/wine-market/#:~:text=Average%20wine%20consumption%20per%20United,from%202.34%20gallons%20in%202005.
  • Crews, Ed. "Rattle-Skull, Stonewall, Bogus, Blackstrap, Bombo, Mimbo, Whistle Belly, Syllabub, Sling, Toddy, and Flip." History.org. 2007. (Mar. 22, 2022) https://bit.ly/3D7NuH4
  • Crosariol, Beppi. "Can white wines really come from red grapes?" Globe and Mail. May 15, 2013. (Mar. 22. 2022) http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/food-and-wine/wine/can-white-wines-really-come-from-red-grapes/article11894167/
  • Economist. "Uncorking the Past." Economist.com. Dec. 20, 2001. (Mar. 22, 2022) http://www.economist.com/node/883706
  • Eldred, Sheila M. "Diet Drinks Get You Drunker." Seeker. Feb. 7, 2013. (Mar. 22, 2022) https://www.seeker.com/diet-drinks-get-you-drunk-faster-1766473467.html
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica "Ethyl Alcohol." Britannica.com. (Mar. 22, 2022 ) https://www.britannica.com/science/ethanol
  • Gambino, Megan. "A Salute to the Wheel." Smithsonian. June 17, 2009. (Mar. 22, 2022) http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/a-salute-to-the-wheel-31805121/?no-ist
  • Gately, Ian. "Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol." Penguin Books. 2008. (Mar. 22, 2022) http://books.google.com/books?id=Ahp8yOGSnd8C&printsec=frontcover&dq=history+of+drinking&hl=en&sa=X&ei=X_QmVNauDof5yASdwoKoDw&ved=0CCYQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=history%20of%20drinking&f=false
  • Handley, Meg. "Product Placement: Tequila (Mexico)." Time magazine. March 31, 2010. (Mar. 22, 2022) http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1975253_1975254_1975272,00.html
  • Holahan, Charles J., Kathleen K. Schutte, Penny L. Brennan, Carole K. Holahan, Bernice S. Moos and Rudolf H. Moos. "Late-Life Alcohol Consumption and 20-Year Mortality." Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. Aug. 24, 2010. (Mar. 22, 2022) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1530-0277.2010.01286.x/abstract
  • Humphrey, Chris. "Mexico City." Moon Handbooks. 2008. (Mar. 22. 2022) https://bit.ly/3ICfGTo
  • Kime, Giles. "Secrets of wine: Insider Secrets into the Real World of Wine." Infinite Ideas. 2005. (Mar. 22, 2022 ) http://books.google.com/books?id=V71CKXCyLVkC&pg=PA59&dq=wine+doesn%27t+improve+with+age&hl=en&sa=X&ei=hiInVN_YK4yyyASIoYDACw&ved=0CEcQ6AEwBw#v=onepage&q=wine%20doesn't%20improve%20with%20age&f=false
  • Lehrer, Jonah. "Why Alcohol Is Good for You." Wired. Sept. 7, 2010. (Mar. 22, 2022) http://www.wired.com/2010/09/why-alcohol-is-good-for-you/
  • Marczinski, Cecile A., and Stamates, Amy L. "Artificial Sweeteners Versus Regular Mixers Increase Breath Alcohol Concentrations in Male and Female Social Drinkers." Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. April 2013. (Mar. 22, 2022) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/acer.12039/abstract
  • NBWA. "The U.S. Beer Industry 2020." (Mar. 25, 2022) https://www.nbwa.org/resources/industry-fast-facts#:~:text=Based%20on%20beer%20shipment%20data,are%20considered%20legal%20drinking%20age.
  • Rogers, Richard G., Etal. "Nondrinker Mortality Risk in the United States. " Population Research Policy Review. June 2013. (Mar. 22. 2022) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4100719/#
  • Saad, Lydia. "Majority in U.S. Drink Alcohol, Averaging Four Drinks a Week." Gallup.com. Aug. 17, 2012. (Mar. 22, 2022)http://www.gallup.com/poll/156770/majority-drink-alcohol-averaging-four-drinks-week.aspx
  • Salmon, Felix. "Vine talk: Not all wines get better with age." Reuters. Aug.24, 2010. (Mar. 22, 2022)) https://www.reuters.com/article/us-wine-age/vine-talk-not-all-wines-get-better-with-age-idUSTRE67N1TV20100824
  • Schmerling, Robert. H. MD. "Sorting out the health effects of alcohol. " Harvard Health Blog. Nov. 3, 2020. (Mar. 22, 2022) https://bit.ly/3tw7zTY
  • Simpson, Willie. "Pure brew sells for $1850 a bottle. " Sydney Morning Herald. Dec. 14, 2010. (Mar. 22, 2022) https://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/pure-brew-sells-for-1850-a-bottle-20101214-18w8g.html
  • Thadeusz, Frank. "Alcohol's Neolithic Origins: Brewing Up a Civilization." Spiegel. Dec. 24, 2009. (Mar. 22, 2022) http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/alcohol-s-neolithic-origins-brewing-up-a-civilization-a-668642.html
  • Ulrich, John. "Alcohol abstinence and mortality in a general population sample of adults in Germany: A cohort study." PLOS Medicine. Nov. 2, 2021 (March 25, 2022)
  • University of Texas at Austin. "Moderate Drinking Helps Middle-Aged and Older People Live Longer, Research Shows." Utexas.edu. Aug. 27, 2010. (Mar. 22, 2022) https://news.utexas.edu/2010/08/27/moderate-drinking-helps-middle-aged-and-older-people-live-longer-research-shows/
  • Vinepair. "The States That Drink the Most Alcohol in America." (Mar. 22, 2022) https://vinepair.com/articles/map-states-drink-alcohol-america-2020/
  • Waldman, Katy. "5 Hour Distillery." Slate. Dec. 10, 2012. (Mar. 22, 2022) http://www.slate.com/articles/life/luxury_explainer/2012/12/starting_a_new_whiskey_company_how_long_do_you_have_to_wait_for_your_spirits.html
  • Zmuda, Natalie. "Bottom's Up! A Look at America's Drinking Habits." Adage.com. June 27, 2011. (Mar. 22, 2022) http://adage.com/article/news/consumers-drink-soft-drinks-water-beer/228422/