Alcohol Facts

Drink Equivalencies

A standard drink is 12 ounces of beer, 4 ounces of wine or 1-1/4 ounces of 80 proof distilled spirits. They all contain about the same amount of pure alcohol (about 1/2 ounce).

Beverage Size Multiplied by % of Alcohol Amount of Pure Alcohol
Beer 12 oz. .045 (4.5%) .54 oz.
Wine 4 oz. .12 (12%) .48 oz.
Spirits (80 proof) 1.25 oz. .40 (40%) .50 oz.

12 ounces of beer is equivalent to 4 ounces of wine is equivalent to 1 and a quarter ounces of 80 proof spirits

Alcohol’s Path Through the Body

There is no digestion needed in alcohol absorption. Alcohol is accepted into the bloodstream in its original form. When alcohol is consumed, about 20 percent is absorbed into the bloodstream through the lining of the stomach. The other 80% of the alcohol passes to the small intestine where it is absorbed into the bloodstream.

About five percent of the alcohol consumed leaves the body through the urine, sweat glands and breathing. Most of the alcohol must be broken down (metabolized) by the liver to remove it from the system. The liver metabolizes alcohol at a very constant rate, about one drink per hour. If there is excessive alcohol in the blood, the liver cannot speed up. The unmetabolized alcohol just continues to circulate in the bloodstream. This is intoxication – when there is a buildup of alcohol in the system.

Allowing the liver enough time to metabolize the alcohol is the only way to remove alcohol from the body. A cold shower, fresh air, exercise or black coffee will not help sober a person up. Time is the only thing that will remove alcohol from the system (about an hour per standard drink).

Alcohol does not require digestion. Most passes into the stomach. About 20% is absorbed into the bloodstream through the stomach. The other 80% passes into the small intestine, where absorption is faster. The pyloric valve, which separates the stomach from the small intestine, closes when food is present in the stomach (especially protein and fatty foods). Therefore, food slows intoxication.

Blood Alcohol Concentration

The amount of alcohol in the body is measured as blood alcohol concentration (BAC). A BAC of .08% is the equivalent of 1/8 of a drop of alcohol to 1000 drops of blood. The body is very sensitive to alcohol. A person with a BAC of .30% may lapse into a coma, and a BAC of .40% can result in death.

How can you tell what a person’s BAC is? ABC does not expect you to know, and you can’t unless you have special equipment like a Breathalyzer. Servers must rely on how a customer looks and acts.

Effects of Increased BAC Levels on a Typical Person

Blood Alcohol Concentration Effects
.02 Reached after approximately one drink; light or moderate drinkers feel some effect; e.g., warmth and relaxation.
.04 Most people feel relaxed, talkative, and happy. Skin may flush.
.05 First sizable changes begin to occur. Lightheadedness, giddiness, lowered inhibitions, and less control of thoughts may be experienced. Both restraint and judgment are lowered; coordination may be slightly altered.
.06 Judgment somewhat impaired; normal ability to make a rational decision about personal capabilities is affected; e.g., concerning diving ability.
.08 Definite impairment of muscle coordination and a slower reaction time; driving ability suffers. Sensory feelings of numbness of the cheeks and lips. Hands, arms and legs may tingle and then feel numb. Effective 1-1-90, it is illegal in California to drive with this or greater BAC.
.10 Clumsy; speech may become fuzzy. Clear deterioration of reaction time and muscle control.
.15 Definite impairment of balance and movement. The equivalent of a half-pint of whiskey is in the bloodstream.
.20 Motor and emotional control centers measurably affected; slurred speech, staggering, loss of balance, and double vision can all be present.
.30 Lack of understanding of what is seen or heard; individual is confused or stuporous. Consciousness may be lost at this level; i.e., individual "passes out."
.40 Usually unconscious; skin clammy.
.45 Respiration slows and can stop altogether.
.50 Death can result.

Alcohol’s Effects on the Body

Alcohol is a depressant drug. Despite the initial feeling of energy it gives, alcohol affects judgment and inhibitions and slows reaction time.

Alcohol depletes the body’s fluids and causes thirst. Its diuretic effects do not help remove alcohol from the body. Because the drinker feels thirsty, he or she may continue to drink more. Servers should routinely offer water on the side as an alternative to drinking more alcohol to satisfy the thirst.

Alcohol causes the small blood vessels on the .surface of the skin to dilate. This result is the loss of body heat. The drinker feels like they are getting warm, but in fact the body is chilling.

Normally, the liver maintains the body’s blood sugar levels, but when alcohol is present, the liver puts metabolizing the alcohol before its other functions. Diabetics are not the only persons who need to be aware of this disruption in blood sugar levels. To the average person, effects after alcohol has entered the bloodstream may be hunger, nausea, and hangovers, which are all caused by a drop in the blood sugar level.

Factors Affecting Intoxication

Alcohol affects each person differently. It also affects the same person differently on different occasions.

The following are some of the factors that affect how quickly a person will become intoxicated:

  • Gender
  • Mood
  • Food in the stomach
  • Amount of alcohol consumed
  • Speed of consumption
  • Tolerance to alcohol
  • Physical condition
  • Medication or drugs
  • Carbonation
  • Altitude


A female becomes intoxicated more quickly than a male of the same size. This is because females have more body fat and are generally smaller than men, which means they have less body fluid in which to dilute the alcohol.


Alcohol exaggerates the mood of a person. An individual who is depressed may become severely depressed while drinking. People who are fatigued or stressed become intoxicated more quickly than people who are rested and relaxed. Physical, mental or emotional exhaustion will increase the impairment caused by alcohol.

Food in the stomach

Food slows down the rate of intoxication because food causes the pyloric valve at the bottom of the stomach to close while digestion takes place.  This keeps alcohol from entering the small intestine, where most of it is absorbed. The best foods for slowing intoxication are greasy, high-protein and fatty foods because they are difficult to digest and stay in the stomach longer. For example: meat balls, chicken wings, cheese, pizza, dips, fried foods, nachos and beet tacos.

Amount of alcohol consumed

The more alcohol a person consumes, the more it accumulates in the blood, increasing intoxication. The liver can only get rid of about one drink per hour.

Speed of consumption

A person who drinks rapidly or gulps drinks becomes intoxicated faster than a person who sips or drinks slowly because they ingest a larger amount of alcohol over the same period of time.

Tolerance to alcohol

Tolerance is the body’s ability to adapt to toxic substances like alcohol. Tolerance varies from individual to individual. Some people have a naturally high tolerance. Other people may develop high tolerance through habitual drinking. Increased tolerance lessens the effects of alcohol on the nervous system. Researchers believe the nerve cells become less sensitive to alcohol from increased exposure. A person with a high tolerance may appear sober when they are impaired. Tolerance means a person can hide the effects better, but it does not mean the person’s BAC is any lower.

Physical condition

A person who is out of shape becomes intoxicated more quickly than a person who is muscular. More muscles means more blood in which to dilute the alcohol.

Medication or drugs

Drugs, legal or illegal, can impair the ability to drive even when not combined with alcohol.  Alcohol and drugs do not mix.  The side effects of combining alcohol with drugs may range from mere discomfort to life-threatening reactions. Servers should not serve a person who has taken any drug.


A person whose drink is carbonated becomes intoxicated more quickly than a person whose drink is not. Carbonation is a gas that pushes alcohol through the digestive system and causing quicker absorption. Sugars-and Juices also speed up the absorption rate.


Drinks consumed at high altitudes are nearly twice as potent in their effect for the first few days until the person becomes accustomed to the height. Servers at ski resorts should be aware of this effect on visitors.


Additional information may be obtained by contacting:

Alcoholic Beverage Control
3927 Lennane Drive, Suite 100
Sacramento, CA 95834

Email us at
Call (916) 419-2500