What is an alcohol unit?

Our easy-to-understand guide gives you the facts and advice on alcohol units and measures.

*We will be updating all of our website and tools to reflect the new alcohol guidance announced on 8 January 2016*

New UK government guidelines state that the alcohol limit for men and women is the same. Both should not regularly drink more than 14 units per week to keep health risks from drinking alcohol low.

If you do drink up to 14 units a week, it's best to spread these evenly across a few days and to have at least two drink-free days a week.

Read more information on new UK government alcohol guidelines 

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The Chief Medical Officer (CMO) for England recommends against underage drinking stating an 'alcohol-free childhood is the best option'.

What is a unit?

One unit is 10 ml of pure alcohol. Because alcoholic drinks come in different strengths and sizes, units are a way to tell how strong your drink is. 

What Is A Unit Page

It takes an average adult around an hour to process this so that there's none left in their bloodstream, although this varies from person to person.

Alcohol by volume

Alcohol content is also expressed as a percentage of the whole drink. Look on a bottle of wine or a can of lager and you'll see either a percentage, followed by the abbreviation "ABV" (alcohol by volume), or sometimes just the word "vol". Wine that says "13 ABV" on its label contains 13% pure alcohol.

The alcoholic content in similar types of drinks varies a lot. Some ales are 3.5%. But stronger continental lagers can be 5% ABV, or even 6%. Same goes for wine where the ABV of stronger 'new world' wines from South America, South Africa and Australia can exceed 14% ABV compared to the 13% ABV average of European wines.

This means that just one pint of strong lager or a large glass of wine can contain more than three units of alcohol.

Want to know the units in your favourite drinks? Find out here...

Spirit measures and wine glass sizes

Spirits used to be commonly served in 25ml measures, which are one unit of alcohol, many pubs and bars now serve 35ml or 50ml measures.

More on the units and calories in spirit measures

Large wine glasses hold 250ml, which is one third of a bottle. It means there can be nearly three units or more in just one glass. So if you have just two or three drinks, you could easily consume a whole bottle of wine without even realising. Smaller glasses are usually 175ml and some pubs serve 125ml.

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Strategies for drinking less at home

If you're pouring your own drinks at home, it's easy to drink more alcohol than you realise. Here are some tips to help you keep track:

  • If you drink wine at home, pour small amounts into your glass.
  • If you fill glasses to the rim, you'll drink more than you realise. Opt for small 125ml glasses too. Measure your spirits instead of free pouring them. The Drinkaware unit measure cup is an ideal way to measure spirits, as well as wine and beer.
  • Try and pour your own drinks. If your partner or your host is constantly topping up your half-filled glass, it's hard to keep track of how much alcohol you are drinking. 

More tips for cutting down at home...

Strategies for drinking less out and about

  • Use the smartphone version of our MyDrinkaware drink tracking tool. It's free and simple to use.
  • Ask for a small glass of wine. A 125ml glass is around one and a half units of alcohol.
  • Drink spritzers if you like wine, or pints of shandy if you're a lager drinker. You'll still get a large drink, but one that contains less alcohol.
  • Opt for half pints if you prefer higher strength lager or try lower strength beer. You really won't notice the difference.
  • Alternate alcoholic drinks with soft drinks.
  • Ask questions. If you are still uncertain about how much you are drinking, ask the bar staff. Do they pour doubles or singles? How big is their large glass of wine?

Are you drinking too much?

Find out how many units you are drinking

Compare your drinking to the government's lower risk guidelines.

Try our Unit Calculator

Take a drinking self assessment

Answer these simple questions and find out what kind of a relationship you have with alcohol.

Assess your drinking

Effects of drinking too much

Over-consumption of alcohol can affect your health in many ways.

Health effects of alcohol Effects on relationships The effects of alcohol on your child

Page updated: February 2016

Page approved by: Drinkaware medical panel