Oh, I only have a couple of drinks…

It’s not uncommon to hear folks say things like “I only have a couple of drinks after I get home,” and similar remarks.

This raises the question of what they mean by “drink.” Back in my drinking career, a “couple of drinks” would have referred to iced tea glasses stuffed with ice and then filled to the brim with vodka or rum. Of course, all that ice would melt and ruin the drink, so it had to be topped off occasionally to keep the “flavor.” (And that doesn’t count a hit from the bottle in the freezer when going for more ice — or into the kitchen for any other reason, for that matter.)

Still, I would have assured you that I only had a couple of drinks in the evening, and in a sense I would have been telling the truth. My version. The one I wanted to believe myself.

So, what’s a drink? Or, more importantly, how much alcohol is there in a drink? Well, as should come as no surprise, that can vary a lot, so professionals refer to “standard drinks” that contain a certain amount of alcohol regardless of other ingredients.

Even then we run into problems of standardization. The amount of alcohol in a standard drink varies by country, from 6 grams in Austria to 19.75 grams in Japan. (Japan, as a country, is in serious denial about the extent of its drinking problem. Binge drinking is a sort of national sport.)


In the United States, a standard drink — or unit — of alcohol is any drink that contains 14 grams of pure alcohol (about 0.6 fluid ounces or 1.2 tablespoons). That is equivalent to roughly the amount of alcohol that can be metabolized by the human body in one hour. This translates to one 12-ounce beer, one 4-ounce glass of wine, or one shot of 80-proof liquor.

Theoretically, if you drank one unit per hour, you could continue to drink indefinitely without becoming intoxicated. In fact, metabolic rates vary among individuals and by gender, so this is not really an accurate approximation. It does, however, give us something to work with.

Experts recommend that people limit themselves to, at most, two drinks a day for men, but only one a day for women, as their bodies do not metabolize alcohol as efficiently. So now you know.

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