Like any type of alcohol, it’s important to track how much you’re drinking. The way spirits are served and consumed can make this difficult.

However, spirits aren’t any more harmful than other types of alcohol if you follow the UK Chief Medical Officers’ (CMO) low risk drinking guidelines and do not regularly drink more than 14 units a week.

Understanding units and the low risk guidelines

The low risk drinking guidelines recommend that both men and women are safest not to regularly drink more than 14 units a week.

Regularly exceeding the guidelines could increase your chances of developing long-term health conditions including diabetes and cancer, could affect your mental health and your appearance.

A single 25ml measure of spirits contains one unit. That might not sound like much, but because spirits can be consumed quickly, units may rapidly stack up.

See how many units are in your favourite drinks

How strong are spirits?

In terms of Alcohol by Volume, spirits are much stronger than other alcoholic drinks like wine or beer.

For instance, standard spirits are often around 35-40% Alcohol by Volume (ABV). This means that they contain 35-40% of pure alcohol.

In comparison, a pint of beer is often around 5% ABV, and a glass of wine 11%.

It's important to remember that many spirits can be much stronger than 40% ABV so be sure to check the strength of what you're drinking. You’ll find the ABV on the side of the bottle, or ask at the bar.

Spirits are often served with non-alcoholic mixers. These mixers hide the taste of alcohol, making them easy to drink, meaning they can be consumed quickly – so it pays to keep tabs on how much you’re drinking.

Track your drinking on the go with our free app

Spirits and drinking speed

Spirits are sometimes called “shorts”, and for a good reason. In a bar or pub they’re usually served in 25ml measures (35ml in some places), 50ml for a double.

That isn’t a lot of liquid – by comparison a pint of beer is 568ml and a small glass of wine 125ml. This means, even when served with a mixer, spirits can be consumed faster than other alcoholic drinks.

This is especially true of shots. Shots can be a single spirit, or two or more mixed together. They’re designed to be drunk in one go, and so hit the blood-stream very fast.

They’re often consumed alongside other drinks, which means taking on-board a lot of alcohol very quickly.

Cocktails can contain a lot of alcohol as well, especially if they’re home-made. For instance, a Negroni can include three shots of three different alcoholic drinks – one spirit and two liqueurs –in total, which is equal to two units.  That’s the same as a whole pint of regular strength beer, in around 75ml of liquid.

Because spirits can be consumed quickly, it may mean you’ll drink more than you want, faster than you’d like. This can make you more vulnerable, and more likely to make bad decisions – like ditching your friends or taking an unregistered cab.

Get more info on how to stay safe when drinking

Pouring drinks at home

Unless you are careful in how you pour them, drinks made with spirits at home can contain more alcohol than the standard 25ml measure served in a pub or bar, which can make it hard to track how much alcohol you’re drinking.

Mixing the drinks yourself is a good way to stay in control. Using a measure, like our unit measure cup, can also help, as it provides a more accurate pour than just measuring “by eye”.

There’s another important thing to think about when making drinks at home. Soft drinks used as mixers can mask the taste of alcohol – so it can be tough to work out how strong a drink really is. This is also true for alcopops.

Spirit-smart tips

  • Be aware of shots: Drinking shots means consuming alcohol very quickly. Slow down the pace by opting out, and choose a long soft drink.
  • Look at the alternatives: From high-end alcohol-free “spirits” to retro-cool ginger beer, there’s more choice than ever before if you want an alternative to drinking alcohol. So why not try something new?
  • Don’t assume ABV: Some craft brands offer spirits with an ABV higher than the “standard” 40%. Remember to always check the side of the bottle, or ask at the bar, to see how strong your drink is.
  • Stay energy-drink savvy: Mixing energy drinks and spirits means taking on caffeine as well as alcohol. Caffeine can keep you awake for longer, masking the effects of alcohol. This may lead people to drink more than they would normally, causing them to become “wide awake drunk” . Find out more about why it can be dangerous to mix alcohol and energy drinks.
  • Download our free app: Our Track and Calculate Units App will help you keep tabs on how much alcohol you’re drinking alongside practical tips on how to cut down. Download it for your smartphone.

Are you drinking too much? Take our Self Assessment to find out