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Drinking Habits

What Is Grain Alcohol? Is It Dangerous?

June 5, 2024
20 min read
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Let’s Get Clear About Everclear: Grain Alcohol Is Dangerous

  • Grain alcohol is a pure form of alcohol used to make liquors, such as vodka, gin, or whiskey. It’s 190 proof and has industrial uses as a solvent and antiseptic.
  • While some forms of grain alcohol (most notably Everclear) are meant for consumption, their potency, along with the lack of smell or distinct taste, make them potentially dangerous. It’s important to know what’s in your drink and steer on the side of moderation (or avoid grain alcohol altogether) to reduce your risk of alcohol poisoning and other negative effects.
  • Reframe can provide you with science-backed information about the dangers of grain alcohol and the effects of alcohol on the body in general. We’re here to cheer you on and help you transform your health by changing your relationship with booze.

It tends to be the bugbear of college dorm parties and any gathering where punch is doled out of oversized orange coolers balanced on crusty microwaves. “Is it grain alcohol? I heard you can’t smell or taste it.” And while drinking any murky liquid when you’re not certain what it is and where it came from isn’t the best idea, grain alcohol takes that risk up a notch.

Although grain alcohol — sometimes marketed as Everclear (though other brands exist) — is ultimately just a potent form of booze, it does have some specific qualities that make it potentially dangerous. So what is grain alcohol exactly? What is grain alcohol made from? And what is Everclear? Let’s explore these questions in more detail.

What Is Grain Alcohol?

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At the most basic level, grain alcohol is a pure form of alcohol that can be used to make other spirits, such as vodka or gin. It’s the result of a two-step process of fermentation and distillation.

  • Fermentation. The first step in alcohol production, fermentation calls for a workforce of microorganisms — usually strains of yeast — to gobble up sugar and convert it to alcohol and carbon dioxide. If we’re talking about grain alcohol, the sources of sugars are various types of grains, such as corn, wheat, barley, rice, oats, rye, quinoa, sorghum, and buckwheat. (Basically anything from the “cereals” or “rice and grains” aisle at the grocery store.)
  • Distillation. After the microorganisms do their job, we end up with a murky liquid mixture (which nobody would be desperate enough to drink, even at a college dorm party). Distillation separates alcohol from the mix through several bouts of heating and cooling. The result? A condensed vapor that gets more and more pure with every round.

The Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) defines grain alcohol as a “neutral spirit.” The name says it all as far as taste and smell are concerned (grain alcohol is odorless and colorless). However, when it comes to potency, it’s anything but “neutral.” Grain alcohol is strong — just about as strong as it gets.

What Proof Is Grain Alcohol?

As a “neutral spirit,” grain alcohol is 190 proof, or 95% alcohol by volume (ABV). If bottled for consumption, it has to be at least 40% ABV (or 80 proof).

What Is Grain Alcohol Used For?

As we already mentioned, grain alcohol can be used to make other spirits, such as vodka, gin, and all those other bottles lining the back shelves of the bar or stocking a typical liquor cabinet. However, others have less glamorous careers and are used for other purposes.

  • Topical antiseptic. What’s a staple in any first-aid kit? Alcohol wipes! Those typically contain grain alcohol, although when used for medical purposes, grain alcohol is usually “denatured” — a process that involves adding a substance to make it unfit for human consumption. Take it from the many unfortunates who’ve landed in the hospital (or worse) from trying to get drunk by sucking the drops of “booze” from these little wipes — it’s not worth it. 
  • Food preservation. Unlike denatured alcohol, food-grade ethanol is another form of grain alcohol typically used to keep certain foods from spoiling. For example, it’s a common ingredient in tinctures (concentrated herbal extracts used in cooking and medicine), extracts (such as vanilla, almond, and lemon extracts), and preserved fruits (cherries are a typical example).
  • Solvent in laboratories. Grain alcohol is also no stranger to the world of science. It’s a top-rate solvent, great at dissolving many organic compounds that aren’t soluble in water. Ethanol is also used to extract active ingredients from plant materials or to isolate substances for analysis. Last but not least, it comes in handy when it’s time to clean all those beakers, slides, and lab benches.

You get the picture — grain alcohol is strong stuff. The fact that it makes for a great cleaning product and preservative everywhere from the kitchen to the hospital and the science lab says it all.

Is Grain Alcohol Dangerous?

It depends on what we mean. If we’re talking about denatured alcohol meant to be used as an antiseptic, solvent, or cleaning agent, then “dangerous” is putting it lightly. Denatured alcohol is extremely toxic (since it often contains methanol), and even a small amount can be deadly.

But what about grain alcohol that’s meant to be consumed, such as Everclear? Is Everclear safe to drink? Well, the mere fact that it’s alcohol makes it dangerous by definition. After all, according to the WHO, “No level of alcohol consumption is safe for our health.”

Okay, but what about grain alcohol in comparison to other types? Are there special risks involved? As it turns out, the answer is, once again, yes. Let’s dig into the details.

Getting Clear About Everclear

In spite of its ethereal name and crystal-clear appearance, Everclear is, indeed, potentially risky. 

Is Everclear Safe To Drink?

According to David Jernigan from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Everclear is not safe to drink. As Jernigan told the Hub, "It's odorless, tasteless, and colorless, which, when combined with its potency, makes it incredibly dangerous … Young people themselves have told us they're concerned about this because you can't tell what you're drinking, and … because it's twice as powerful as everything else."

Binge drinking (having five or more drinks in one sitting for men and four or more for women) is a common problem on college campuses, and grain alcohol makes it that much more likely. It’s easy to consume a lot more than we realize, sometimes crossing the line into alcohol-poisoning territory much faster than with other drinks.

A 2022 National Survey on Drug Use and Health showed that almost half of all college students (aged 18 to 22) drank alcohol, while close to a third admitted to binge drinking in the past month. As Jernigan explained, those who binged were 36 times more likely to pick grain alcohol as their drink of choice than those who practiced moderation.

Jernigan even said that students are calling Everclear a “date rape drug” and suggests limiting its availability. "We can reduce the danger in the beverages kids are selecting,” he says. “At the end of the day, this is all about trying to protect kids."

The Dangers of Everclear

The dangers of Everclear include all the usual risks associated with booze but to a higher degree.

  • Nausea and vomiting. With high-proof alcohol, we’re that much more likely to “lose our lunch” (or our dinner, or that midnight pizza).
  • Cognitive impairment. Alcohol inhibits the activity of the prefrontal cortex, leading us to make impulsive and rash decisions. That impromptu table dance at a company retreat? Or the embarrassing message to our ex? It’s that much more likely with grain alcohol in the picture.
  • Accidents and injuries. If we end up intoxicated faster, we’re putting ourselves at risk of accidents and injuries, especially if we decide to drive or do anything that requires coordination and alertness.
  • Binge drinking. It’s easier to end up binge drinking (whether we mean to or not).
  • Alcohol poisoning. Drinking grain alcohol puts us at risk of alcohol poisoning, which can be deadly. If we’re not used to the effects and drink too quickly, we could be in dangerous territory faster than we realize.
  • Dehydration and hangovers. Alcohol is notorious for causing dehydration, which contributes to hangovers the next day. Moreover, higher-proof drinks can increase our morning-after woes since our liver might not be able to process them fast enough to prevent acetaldehyde build-up, which is behind a lot of unpleasant hangover symptoms.
  • Health problems. Frequently drinking high-proof alcohol can increase the detrimental effects booze can have on our health. We’re looking at heart problems, liver damage, and even possible brain damage down the road.

It’s always best to stay on the safe side when it comes to booze, and given the strength of grain alcohol, it makes sense to be extra careful. To learn more about how to tell if our drinking is veering into the danger zone, check out “8 Signs That You’re Drinking Too Much.”

Beyond Everclear

Everclear isn’t the only type of grain alcohol out there. There are others as well.

  • Alcohol-95. As the name makes clear, Alcohol-95 grain alcohol product is about 95% ABV. It’s sometimes used as a base for other spirits and liquors.
  • Golden Grain. This variety is made from neutral grain spirits as well.
  • Clear Spring. Another famous grain alcohol brand, this one is distilled from corn or wheat.

Keep in mind that all of these are highly potent forms of alcohol, despite what the gentle-sounding names might suggest.

The Dangers of Everclear

Tips To Steer Clear of Everclear

Now that we’ve “clarified” a few things about Everclear and grain alcohol in general, here are some tips to stay safe.

  1. Be careful with grain alcohol. Remember, with a name like Everlear, Clear Spring, or Golden Grain, it might look, smell, and sound like glorified water, but it’s far from it! Grain alcohol is extremely strong and can get you drunk faster than you realize.
  2. Take a look at your drinking habits. If you find yourself drinking “to get drunk” or looking for the strongest option out there, it might be time to reexamine your drinking habits in general. Do this in a spirit of curiosity, not judgment. When do you tend to drink, and why? How do you feel afterward? Is alcohol providing what it “promises,” or do you end up feeling worse as a result? Looking at your patterns in this way could provide important insight. Think of it as an experiment — you may just discover that drinking less is more in line with how you want to feel in the long run.
  3. Watch your drink. If you’re in a situation where you think your drink might have been spiked with grain alcohol without your knowledge, err on the side of safety and opt out. You’re not being “rude,” you’re taking care of your health and safety, which should always come first.
  4. Have a plan (and a backup plan). Decide what you plan to drink before you head out and try to stick to your plan. Use an accountability buddy if it helps. Make sure you have an “out” if you think you might be pressured to drink more than you’d like, and decide ahead of time how you’ll get home if your original plan falls through (for example, if you decide to head out before everyone else is ready). 
  5. Trust your gut. The RAINN website gives this advice when it comes to alcohol safety: “If you feel unsafe, uncomfortable, or worried for any reason, don’t ignore these feelings. Go with your gut. Get somewhere safe and find someone you trust, or call law enforcement.”
  6. Try some alternatives. Want to stay extra safe? Opt for a fun mocktail instead! If you need some ideas, check out “21 Mocktails To Order at Any Bar.”

And remember, most importantly, your health is always the top priority. Don’t feel pressured into trying drinks. It’s your decision whether you want to drink at all, and Reframe is here to back you up with a community of people just like you who are striving to be their happiest, healthiest selves.

Stay Ever-Cautious

In the end, grain alcohol is strong, and carries some extra risks because of its “neutral” appearance and smell. In February 2024, Utah actually banned the sale of beverages higher than 80% ABV, such as Everclear. According to Rep. Jefferson Burton, "It's a mighty powerful drink and we have seen deaths from alcohol poisoning with this particular product.” And while it remains legal in most states, it’s wise to approach grain alcohol (and alcohol in general) with caution.

Summary FAQs

1. What is pure grain alcohol?

Grain alcohol is a highly purified form of alcohol derived from grains like corn, wheat, or barley. It is produced through a two-step process: fermentation, where sugars from the grains are converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide by yeast, followed by distillation, which concentrates the alcohol by separating it from the mixture.

2. What is grain alcohol percentage ABV?

Grain alcohol is extremely potent, typically bottled at 190 proof, which means it is 95% alcohol by volume (ABV). This high level of alcohol content makes it one of the strongest alcoholic beverages available.

3. Is Everclear safe to drink?

While grain alcohol is legal and can be consumed, it is very potent and should be handled with care. Due to its high alcohol content, it can be hazardous if consumed inappropriately, potentially leading to alcohol poisoning and other serious health issues.

4. What is grain alcohol used for?

Grain alcohol can be used as a base for creating other spirits, as a preservative in food products, and as a solvent in laboratories. It's also a key ingredient in antiseptics and sanitizers.

5. Why is grain alcohol considered dangerous?

Due to its high potency and neutral flavor and smell, grain alcohol can be particularly dangerous as it is easy to consume in large amounts without realizing it. This can rapidly lead to intoxication and increases the risk of alcohol poisoning.

Clarify Your Relationship With Alcohol by Joining Reframe!

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol. 

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app today!

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