What is an alcohol unit?
Our easy-to-understand guide gives you the facts and advice on alcohol units and measures.
Understanding how many units of alcohol you drink is a great first step to looking after your health. But what is a unit, and what does it mean?
Alcohol units are a simple way of understanding the quantity of pure alcohol in a drink.
One unit is 10ml (millilitres) or 8g (grams) of pure alcohol. Because alcoholic drinks come in different strengths and sizes, units are a way to tell how strong your drink is, which can also help you to make comparisons.
As an example, a pint of average strength beer (4% ‘alcohol by volume’, or ABV – see below for explanation) has about two units in it, while a single measure (25ml) of typical spirits is one unit.
It takes an average adult around an hour to process one unit of alcohol so that there's none left in their bloodstream, although this varies from person to person. And the more you drink, the longer it takes – so, six units of alcohol would take the average person six hours to process.
The UK’s Chief Medical Officers advise that, if you choose to drink, it’s safest to drink no more than 14 units a week (for both men and women). It’s also important to spread any drinking over three or more days, with several drink-free days and no bingeing.
Drinks labels also contain information on the percentage of alcohol a drink contains – this is known as ‘alcohol by volume’ or ABV.
Look on a bottle of wine or a can of lager and you'll see either a percentage, followed by the abbreviation ‘ABV’, or sometimes just the word ‘vol’. So, as an example, wine that says ‘13 ABV’ on its label contains 13% pure alcohol.
The alcoholic content of similar types of drinks can vary a lot. For example, some ales are 3.5% ABV, but stronger continental lagers and craft beers can be 5% or 6% ABV, or even more – always check the label.
The same is true for wine - some stronger wines can exceed 14% ABV, and it seems that, on average, wine has been getting stronger in recent years. The only way to be sure of how much alcohol is in your glass of wine is to check the label, or ask at the bar.
One pint of strong lager or a large glass of wine each contain more than three units of alcohol.
Pubs and bars used to commonly serve spirits (like vodka, gin, rum or whisky) in 25ml measures - that’s about one unit of alcohol per measure. But these days many pubs and bars have switched to 35ml or 50ml measures – meaning you might be having a lot more alcohol without realising.
There has been a trend towards larger servings for wine too. If you order a large glass of wine, that means you’re having 250ml – and that is likely to contain at least three units of alcohol in a single glass.
So, drinking three large glasses of wine is the same as drinking a whole bottle (750ml), which, like any binge drinking, can have serious consequences for your health. Binge drinking in the UK, as defined by the NHS, is drinking more than eight units of alcohol in a single session for men, and more than six units of alcohol in a single session for women.
Regularly having just one or two heavy drinking episodes a week will increase your risk of death from long-term illness and from accidents and injuries.1
Why not switch to a smaller glass? Licensed premises that sell wine by the glass have to offer it in 125ml and 175ml glasses too, as well as the larger 250ml glasses.2 The Chief Medical Officers advise you can reduce your risks by limiting the total amount of alcohol you drink on any single occasion, drinking more slowly, drinking with food, and alternating with water.
If you drink at home, a good way to avoid accidentally pouring too much and limit how many units of alcohol you have is with a measuring cup. Get one from the Drinkaware shop today.
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Last Reviewed: 8th March 2023
Next Review due: 31st October 2025