If you’ve arrived at this page, you’re probably planning a party. At least, one hopes that you’re planning a party. A handle of alcohol is no small thing, and it certainly should not be consumed by just one person. Handles of alcohol are designed for bustling parties where mixed drinks will be flowing bountifully. Alcohol comes in a variety of shapes, sizes, and proofs, but when it comes to dealing with serving a large amount of people, a “handle” is your best bet.
But as far as terms go, “handle” isn’t terribly scientific; if you’re trying to calculate precisely how much alcohol you’ll need for a given event, “handle” will bring to mind a vague but imperfect approximation of how much booze you’ll be getting. So, then, just how much is a handle of alcohol, exactly? This How Much Guide to the world of booze, its proofs, and its sizes will let you in on all you need to know when you head to your local liquor store to stock up for your next social gathering.
Alcohol: Its Proofs
Before going into the sizes of the vessels that alcohol is sold in, there’s one number to consider before stacking up: proof. This is one of the most commonly misunderstood terms when alcohol is talked about, and it’s important to know for safety and flavor reasons how strong a particular libation is. With respect to safety, one of course doesn’t want to overserve her or his patrons, as intoxication at a mass level (or really any level) is likely to lead to some trouble. On the matter of flavor, too much alcohol can dampen the flavor profile of a sophisticated cocktail. Even if one likes her drinks stiff, it’s also important to appreciate the flavor of a well-made cocktail, and too much alcohol will make that task difficult.
Most liquor bottles will list both proof and percentage of alcohol, which are related but not synonymous terms. Take, for instance, a bottle of Kraken, a pretty potent dark rum. This is what the label of the Kraken looks like:
Right below the word “Rum” there are two numbers: the percentage of alcohol by volume, which is 47 percent, and the proof of the alcohol, which is 94 percent. You might notice that the former is half of the latter, which is a universal mathematical operation. To get the percentage of alcohol by volume (ABV), divide the proof by two. An 80 proof liquor will be 40 percent alcohol by volume, 50 proof will be 25, and so on. Even if a label only lists one of those two numbers, you should be able to easily figure out what the other is with a simple division operation.
Now, since this article’s focus is on the size of a handle of alcohol, why does proof matter? Well, before you stock up on huge bottles of liquor, it’s important to know the proof of the alcohol you’re purchasing for a few reasons:
Proof and Usage: If a liquor is especially strong, you don’t want to use too much of it, otherwise it will totally obliterate any flavor profiles you’re trying to develop in a cocktail. For instance, the notorious fire-stoker (both literally and metaphorically) Everclear rings in at either 151 proof (75.5 percent ABV) or 190 (95 percent ABV, or about as close to pure alcohol as you can get). A handle Everclear would be an unnecessary purchase, since you would only need to use a scant amount per cocktail, assuming, that is, that you intend to use something as intense as Everclear in the first place. (Everclear is almost exclusively talked about as an intoxicating rather than a tasty liquor; with its bracing ABV, there’s little to taste except the foreshadowing of a hangover).
The main point here is that the strength of an alcohol will help inform your decisionmaking when it comes to figuring out how much alcohol you need to purchase for a given event. The higher the proof of an alcohol, the less of it you will need to use to effectively flavor a cocktail. (Knowing proof and ABV will also let you know how much you can drink before your blood alcohol content is unsafely high.)
It’s important to pay attention to proofs when making a generic cocktail, like a Rum and Coke or a Vodka and Soda. Some liquors fall within a fairly predictable range of ABV: for example, whiskies will feature in the 70-100 proof range. Others, like rum, will fall into a less predictable range. Rum is a liquor that takes to many flavor preparation both sweet and bitter. The aforementioned Kraken straddles the line between the two, offering a sweet, molassesey flavor to balance its intense ABV. A rum like Malibu, which consists of rum and coconut liqueur, runs in the low 40 proof category, making it a more widely palatable option for a Rum and Coke. When making your party list, you should know what specific versions of generic liquors (e.g. rum, whiskey, vodka, etc) you will use, as this will partially inform how much of it you need to buy.
Proof and Cost: If you’re deciding between a few different versions of a liquor, and all things are being held equal with respect to flavor, proof could help you determine the most cost-efficient option. If you’re deciding between three equally priced types of vodka, give or take — perhaps in the “handle” size — and one of the three has a noticeably higher proof, that one will be the best buy. This is because you can use fewer amounts of the vodka per drink, which will increase the longevity of the handle you purchase. The same goes with Kraken in the previous example: if all of your party guests like Kraken and Malibu equally, rather different though they are, then an equally-priced handle of Kraken will last longer than one of Malibu. The more you pay attention to proof, the more likely you are to get your money’s worth. Alcohol doesn’t have to be a worrisome purchase for penny-pinchers, so long as you go into the store knowing what you need and are looking for.
Alcohol: Its Sizes
While the size of a liquor bottle will depend upon the maker of a liquor, which country the liquor was made in, or what type of store one is shopping in (e.g. stores that sell in bulk are more likely to have handles or other large sizes), by and large liquor is sold in several standardized sizes, one of which is the “handle.” Here are a few of the common size categories for liquor:
- Shot: The staple of college bars, frat parties, and tequila enthusiasts, a “shot” ranges anywhere from 25 to 50 ml for a single and 50 to 100 for double. The variance in the size of shots has to do with the varying standards for liquor service set by countries around the globe. (For more on this, Wikipedia has a handy guide.)
- “The Minibar Bottle”: Also known generically as the “miniature,” the “Minibar” or “Airplane” bottle of liquor is similar in volume to a shot, usually containing 50 ml at most. These bottles are so named for their ubiquity hotel minibars, and also the small bar carts in airplanes.
- Fifth: This size (750 ml, or 25 ounces) is the standard for both liquor and wine bottles. The name of this bottle derives from its volume as being one fifth of a gallon.
A fifth of Jack Daniel’s Whiskey (80 proof, 40 ABV).
- A “Handle”: Now we arrive at the bottle size that we first mentioned in this article. A handle holds half a gallon of liquor, or 1.75 liters. This type of bottle is called a “handle” because many (not all) of these bottles incorporate a handle to make carrying them easier. Thus, the term “handle” is actually a synecdoche for the entirety of the bottle itself. (Synecdoches are words where a part is taken to represent the whole.)
Having gone over the proofs, ABV, and sizes of liquor, there’s one more thing to consider when thinking about buying a handle of alcohol: type. Even if you’re throwing a hundred-plus person bash, it won’t be necessary to buy handles of every type of alcohol you will be using. Handles are best reserved for some types of alcohol.
These types include whiskey, rum, vodka, and gin, which are liquors that are used in a variety of standard and specialty cocktail preparations. Whiskey can be used for Whiskey and Coke, a Manhattan, an Old Fashioned, or even just Whiskey on the Rocks. Vodka mixes with a wide variety of sodas, fruit juices, and other liquors. If you can anticipate using a lot of one type of liquor — which will most likely be one of the prenominate four — then you’d be wise to buy in “handle” form.
Other more specialized liquors will either not come in a handle or be an unnecessary purchase in that size. Campari, the famous blood-red Italian aperitif (before-dinner liqueur), features only in a few preparations, most notably the Negroni. Because its use is limited, you would be wasting money in purchasing an excess amount of it (though Campari does not actually come in handle size).
So when you’re thinking about stocking up on booze for your next social event, remember the three main categories of this article: size, proof, and type. With good working knowledge of those three things, as well as the tastes of your guests, you’ll be able to stock a bar that keeps everyone satisfied. It goes without saying, of course, that we here at How Much Guide only encourage responsible drinking; now that you know how much is in a handle of alcohol, it’s safe to say you’ll want to invest in a bottle pourer, which will ensure that you don’t overserve yourself or your guests. A well-made drink can liven up a party, but that doesn’t mean you have to go overboard to have fun.