Alcohol is one of the most commonly misused substances in the United States. The majority of Americans have tried alcohol at least once in their lifetime. In 2019, more than a quarter of adults in the United States reported binge drinking in the past month. Alcohol misuse can lead to chemical dependence and addiction, and heavy drinking risks alcohol poisoning and accidents caused by intoxication. Overdose and alcohol poisoning is a risk with any alcoholic beverage, but it may be more likely with one particular kind of beverage called grain alcohol. Grain alcohol isn’t a popular beverage to drink on its own. But it has a high alcohol content that makes it attractive for people looking for quick intoxication.
Learn more about grain alcohol and why it’s such a dangerous beverage to misuse.
What Is Grain Alcohol?
Many different types of alcohol are made from mixing grain into the fermenting mash. Beer is made with grain. Even corn is a type of grain, and that goes into several kinds of whiskey, including bourbon. But grain alcohol is a term that refers to a specific type of distilled alcohol that’s highly purified. Alcohol is what most people call a specific type of alcohol called ethanol. Ethanol is the only type of alcohol that humans can drink without experiencing high toxicity. This may be because ethanol is a naturally occurring chemical in ripening fruit that humans need to be able to eat.
Ethanol is made in several different ways. The most basic occurs with beer and wine. In both, organic materials like grapes, wheat, or barley are combined with yeast that breaks down the sugars in the plants. As the sugar breaks down, it creates ethanol as a byproduct. A portion of the resulting liquid is made up of ethanol. Beer is around 5% alcohol, and wine is around 12% alcohol.
Spirits and liquor go through an additional process to increase the percentage of alcohol called distillation. After the organic mash is fermented, the resulting liquid is distilled, which means that it’s heated to a boil, causing the liquid to be converted to gas. However, ethanol has a lower boiling point than other substances, including water. Ethanol boils at 173.1°F, while water boils at 212°F. This allows distillers to draw the ethanol out of the liquid and collect it through condensation. This allows liquor to have a much higher alcohol content. Whiskey, vodka, and tequila are around 40% alcohol.
But grain alcohol, which is found in brands like Everclear, has a much higher alcohol content. It can be purchased with as much as 95% alcohol.
How Is Grain Alcohol Different from Other Drinks?
Grain alcohol starts like many other spirits. It’s made from mostly corn, but it can also be made using wheat and rye. It starts with a similar process to other spirits. The organic material is cooked into a mash, and yeast is added to break down the sugars. Then it’s distilled, increasing the alcohol content of the drug. But grain alcohol is distilled more than once.
During the distillation process, distillers have a window of time as the mash heats up to collect alcohol through condensation before water and a dangerous chemical called methanol enter the product. So they can’t get more ethanol by distilling longer. Instead, they repeat the process by distilling more than once. Everclear is distilled twice. This creates what is called a rectified spirit, also called a neutral spirit. An alcoholic beverage that has been purified or is close to pure.
Why is Grain Alcohol so High in Alcohol?
If you haven’t ever tried grain alcohol, you may already be guessing that it’s not very pleasant to drink. The high alcohol content would give it a smell and flavor similar to rubbing alcohol — and unpleasant chemical taste. You probably won’t be able to pair alcohol with your favorite meal at your local steakhouse, and you probably won’t be able to order it straight at a bar. However, the way it’s used and the reason companies like Everclear produce it are two different things.
Companies like Everclear intend grain alcohol to be used as a mixer. The high alcohol content allows you to add an alcoholic twist to flavorful beverages without changing the flavor. If a bartender comes up with a tasty cocktail, they can add a very small amount of grain alcohol to punch it up without compromising flavor.
But the high alcohol content of grain alcohol presents an easy opportunity for misuse and abuse. A bottle of grain alcohol can cost around $20 and provide quick intoxication. People looking for a cheap and quick way to get drunk may gravitate towards grain alcohol. Grain alcohol also feeds into the challenge culture of alcohol. Similar to how very spicy food attracts curious people, high alcohol content beverages also invite challenges.
Grain alcohol may also attract people with severe alcohol use disorders. Addiction can affect multiple areas of your life, including your career and financial stability. People with chronic alcohol use problems may struggle to provide for themselves as the compulsion to drink becomes more important than other needs, leading to financial problems and homelessness. Grain alcohol provides a cheap and effective way to maintain an alcohol use disorder. However, it will only make the problem worse.
Why Is Grain Alcohol Dangerous?
Even though ethanol is the only safe alcohol for humans to drink, we can only handle so much at a time. When you drink alcohol, your body will immediately start to process it. Even though humans have developed a way to process alcohol, your body can’t store it, so you have to take care of it immediately. Your liver goes to work filtering alcohol out of your blood and breaking it down. When it’s broken down, it’s eliminated through urine. However, most people can only process one standard drink an hour. A standard drink contains around 14 grams of pure alcohol.
Drinking more than that will allow alcohol to slip past your liver and into your bloodstream, where it’s distributed throughout your body. When it reaches your brain, alcohol causes its psychoactive effects. However, alcohol creates toxic chemicals in the liver as it’s broken down. One chemical is called acetaldehyde, which can damage organs in your body. Under normal circumstances, toxic chemicals created by alcohol aren’t enough to cause permanent damage to your body. But in very high doses or over a long period of time of consistent use, ethanol can lead to serious medical consequences.
Grain Alcohol and Alcohol Poisoning
The danger of alcohol poisoning is present in all kinds of alcohol, even non-distilled drinks like beer. If you drink enough alcohol, it can lead to heavy intoxication and alcohol poisoning. Alcohol poisoning can slow your breathing and heart rate, leading to coma and oxygen deprivation. You may also experience severe medical complications from aspirating vomit, heart failure, dehydration, hypothermia, and accidents caused by intoxication.
Though any alcohol can cause alcohol poisoning, grain alcohol can cause it quickly and more easily than drinks with lower alcohol content. A blood-alcohol content of around 0.08 will cause motor skill impairment and impaired judgment. At 0.13, you’ll experience serious impairment and a lack of motor control, along with blurred vision and a feeling of being unwell. At a BAC of 0.25 to 0.30, alcohol starts to cause some immediate health risks. You’ll be nauseous, and you may vomit. It may be difficult to stay awake. At 0.35 to 0.40, you’ll lose consciousness, and you may slip into a coma. A BAC of 0.40, a coma is likely, and death from respiratory failure is a serious risk.
Beverages with a lower alcohol content require you to drink a lot more to increase your blood alcohol content to dangerous levels. Because of the high concentration, a small amount of grain alcohol can push you past the point of intoxication. Drinking grain alcohol can push you into high levels of BAC quickly, and accidental overdose is more likely.
Grain Alcohol and Chronic Health Conditions
Chronic heavy drinking can result in health issues like heart disease, liver disease, and certain cancers. Alcohol famously destroys the liver, leading to alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis of the liver. But it also contributes to heart disease as alcohol’s toxic effects attack the heart. Grain alcohol abuse makes heavy drinking easier. Drinking grain alcohol also makes it difficult to avoid heavy intoxication. Drinking a little too much can increase your BAC significantly.
Is Grain Alcohol Legal?
Grain alcohol is federally legal to buy and sell in the United States, but its legality varies by state. In some states, alcohol laws vary from county to county. High-proof alcohol like grain alcohol is illegal in 14 states. It requires a grain alcohol license in Virginia, which is intended only to be used for commercial, culinary, or medical use. Pennsylvania also requires a permit for 190 proof alcohol like Everclear.