Calories in Alcohol: Is Your Drink Really a Better Choice?

Calculating Calories from Hard Liquor

Most people who drink are interested in understanding the calories in their alcohol. I am seeing “lower-calorie” alcoholic beverages absolutely everywhere lately, and of course, like most lighter choices, they are generally more expensive than the traditional options. Let’s talk about whether it makes sense to spend the extra money on these drinks and discuss if they are truly lower-calorie. Don’t worry — I’ll do the math for you, but be forewarned that there is A LOT of arithmetic here.  

The following equation is used to calculate the calories from alcohol in beverages:

Alcohol calories = amount of beverage (oz) x proof x 0.8

The calories in hard liquors are easy to calculate because they are straight alcohol. 

Let’s say that you are drinking 1 ½-oz of 86-proof whiskey; you would calculate the calories like this: 

1 ½ oz x 86 proof x 0.8 = 103 calories

To calculate proof, multiply the ABV (alcohol by volume) by two. For example, if a wine is 15% ABV, it is 30-proof. If beer is 3% alcohol, it is 6-proof. 

Wine, beer, and hard seltzers (basically any alcoholic beverage besides hard liquor) also contain carbohydrate, and the calories from this carbohydrate have to be accounted for. 

NOTE: Because of rounding, you will very rarely match what the manufacturer has calculated exactly, but you should be able to come close. 

Calculating Calories in Alcohol: Wine

A six-oz glass of wine that is 13% ABV:

6 oz x 26 proof x 0.8 =  125 calories from alcohol

Each gram of carbohydrate contains four calories.

If this wine contains 6 grams of carbohydrate (6×4 = 24), add 24 calories to the 125 calories from alcohol to get a total of 149 calories per glass. 

According to the website, a 5-oz serving of Fit Vine Chenin Blanc (advertised as a lower-calorie option)  is 12% ABV, contains 3.6 grams of carbohydrate, and is 104 calories. The math here makes sense. 

5 oz x 24 proof x 0.8 = 96 calories

3.6 grams of carbohydrate x 4 calories per gram of carbohydrate = 14 calories 

96 + 14 = 110 calories (roughly) 

Cense premium wines are 9.5% ABV and contain 85 calories per 5-oz glass. The math here also makes sense. 

5 oz x 19 proof x 0.8 = 76 calories

4 grams of carbohydrate x 4 calories per gram of carbohydrate = 16 calories

76 + 16 = 92 calories (roughly) 

An Example of A Fraudulent Claim

Unfortunately, I came across a heavily advertised canned wine that does not make sense mathematically. Each can is 8.45 oz,11.9% ABV, 3 grams of carbohydrate, and contains 112 calories, according to the website –  but the math doesn’t quite work out right: 

8.45 oz x 23.8 proof x 0.8 = 161 calories

3 grams of carbohydrate x 4 calories per gram of carbohydrate = 12 calories

161 + 12 = 173 calories (roughly) 

This is a pretty big difference from the 112 calories that this wine is marketed as containing per serving.

Calculating Calories in Alcohol: Beer

Now, let’s look at a regular beer and a light beer. 

A 12-oz bottle of Sierra Nevada West Coast Style Stout is 5.8% ABV, contains 22 grams of carbohydrate, and is 210 calories.

12 oz x 11.6 proof x 0.8 = 111 calories

22 grams of carbohydrate x 4 calories per gram of carbohydrate = 88 calories 

111 + 88 = 199 calories (roughly)

A 12-oz bottle of Budweiser Select 55 is 2.4% ABV, contains 2 grams of carbohydrate, and is 55 calories. 

12 oz x 4.8 proof x 0.8 = 46 calories

2 grams of carbohydrate x 4 calories per grams of carbohydrate = 8 calories

46 + 8 = 54 calories (roughly) 

Calculating Calories in Alcohol: Hard Seltzers

Let’s have a look at a few hard seltzers now. 

A 12-oz can of White Claw Hard Seltzer is 5% ABV, contains 2 grams of carbohydrate, and is 100 calories. 

12 oz x 10 proof x 0.8 = 96 calories

2 grams of carbohydrate x 4 calories per gram of carbohydrate = 8 calories

96 + 8 = 104 calories (roughly) 

A 16-oz can of Truly Extra Hard Seltzer is 8% ABV, contains 4 grams of carbohydrate, and is 220 calories. 

16 oz x 16 proof x 0.8 = 205 calories

4 grams of carbohydrate x 4 calories per gram of carbohydrate = 16 calories

205 +16 = 221 calories (roughly)

What is the point of all of this, Elaine?

The point is that there is no magic here! There is nothing special about these “lower calorie” options. They are either lower in carbohydrate or alcohol or both. It’s up to you whether they are worth the extra money for your lifestyle. For a lot of people (including me), they aren’t. If you’re going to drink two light seltzers because, well, Hell, they are “light” after all, you will do just as well to enjoy two small (5 oz each)  glasses of regular wine. 

Regardless of whether you are choosing “lower sugar/lower carb/lighter/vitamin-infused” alcoholic beverages or not, it is very easy to overdo it, and your health will take a hit if you imbibe too often.