Taking The Metric Fifth

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

Last year I attended a post-Thanksgiving social function. One of the hosts was busy in the kitchen creating some manner of confection with bourbon in it.  I was suddenly sought out as the resident measurement person and this conversation occurred:

Host: “How much is a fifth of whiskey?”

MM: “There is no such thing anymore, it’s 750 mL. I believe it used to be one-fifth of a gallon.”

The Host clearly saw my answer as completely unsatisfactory, apparently very difficult to believe, and asked to borrow a smart-phone so he could look on the internet. After some conversation with others and my directly asking, he indicated I was right. It just seemed like too much liquor to put into the recipe.

The fifth is a surprisingly strange volume—even for US Ye Olde English Units. The fifth was equal to 1/5 of a US gallon which is equal to 4/5 of a quart which is also equal to 25 3/5 fluid ounces which is 757 mL.

Whenever my friend Lapin is confronted with something he said in the past which after some reflection appears incoherent, he generally states: “I don’t know, I must have been drunk at the time.” The spirits industry apparently wasn’t when they chose the fifth. According to Amy Richards Krumich, who for a short time wrote a metric blog called Penny Wise and Pound Foolish, the origin of The Fifth is thus:

That size [750 mL] was chosen [by Europe and the US] because it contained approximately the same volume as the “American Fifth” (a fifth of a gallon) whether it was wine or hard spirits. The fifth had been invented by the spirits industry many years before to avoid being taxed, since taxes were assessed for quarts or larger volumes of wine or spirits.

So the quantity was invented to avoid liquor taxes? That seems likely.

One of the strangest occurrences in the 1970s, was that one industry apparently didn’t get the memo that the metric system in the US is very, very, very voluntary. It was the hard liquor and wine industry. This is an amazing singularity, and is offered constantly as an example that we are “going metric soon” because the alcohol manufacturers have done so. Unfortunately US metrication is always a Friedman Unit away, but well-meaning metric enthusiasts cite it as evidence of current change. In his 2004 book The United States of Europe T.R. Reid states on page 5:

Because the united Europe is the world’s largest trade market, it is the “Eurocrats” in Brussels, more and more, who make the business regulations that that govern global industry. There’s a reason why the quintessential American whiskey, Kentucky bourbon is sold today in 75 cl bottles. It’s not because American consumers suddenly demanded to sip their sour mash by the centiliter

Later on page 233:

No matter how efficient and and logical metrics might be, we still prefer our inches and feet, ounces and pounds, yards and miles. But American food and drink labels today are going metric. You can’t buy a “fifth” (that is, a fifth of a gallon) of American Whiskey anymore; all liquors are sold by the centiliter today, because that’s how the European market demands it. Instead of a “fifth” the standard bottle now is 70 or 75 centiliters, which turns out to be a few sips short of a fifth of a gallon. It is because of the European regulatory influence that Americans routinely buy 2-liter bottles of Coca-Cola….”

T.R. Reid like other US citizens knows about as much about the metric system as most Americans do about cricket. Centiliters! Seriously? Milliliters are what are used in enlightened metric countries—like Australia. The Eurocrats in Brussels forced the US into metric booze?–and two liter bottles of soda?

Here is what Wikipedia states about the “Metric Fifth”:

During the 1970s, there was a push for metrication of U.S. government standards. In 1975, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, in cooperation with the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, proposed six metric-standard bottle sizes to take effect in January 1979 and these standards were incorporated into Title 27 of the Code of Federal Regulations.[7][8] These sizes are 50, 100, 200, 375 (355 for cans), 500 (until June 1989), 750, 1000, and 1750 mL.

The mystery is that this change occurred at all. The actual change for liquor occurred in 1979, at the height of the “US faux-metric-conversion.” It is my understanding that the European Union was founded in 1993. So Brussels “forced” 750 mL bottles of Whiskey on the US approximately 14 years before the EU was founded? The two-liter bottle was introduced by Pepsi in 1970—and seemingly has zero to do with any proclamations from Brussels at the end of the 1960s—unless those are some supernaturally powerful Eurocrats!

In recent years I’ve been pleased to see bottles of soda which are 500 mL and 1 liter, but I’ve also seen pints, quarts and numerous variations of Ye Olde English proliferate with them. It seems very likely this mixture of odd sizes is somehow used to “profit from the yardstick.” If they were all in metric, and in milliliters, there would be no wiggle room. You would see the difference between a 300, 350 and 355 mL can of anything immediately and easily compute the price per mL. Market Darwinism embraces the proliferation of measurement units, as it has throughout history.

There are many aphorisms about the metric system in the US that I believe cause complacency. One statement is “We’re over 50% metric in the US.” I’ve never been able to trace down any reference, or any study upon which this assertion could “hold water.” The fact that booze is sold in metric, and that we have two-liter bottles is also offered as contemporary evidence of change—every decade since the change occurred. This is change which actually occurred over 35 years ago for liquor and 44 years ago for two-liter bottles. It’s time to face up to the fact that metric usage in the US is stagnant, and waiting for metrication to magically happen without government intervention is a fools errand. Asserting stagnation is actually alteration only causes procrastination. Waiting doesn’t produce change, nor does quaffing a metric drink of alcohol move us one millimeter closer to a metric US. A person who asserts otherwise?—-“must have been drunk at the time.”

Related essay:

The Singular Beverage Experience

21 thoughts on “Taking The Metric Fifth

  1. The US uses 750 mL as the most common size for both wine and spirits (several other sizes are allowed as well). However, the EU uses 750 mL for wine but 700 mL for spirits. Therefore, our whiskey is in a bottle size WE demand, not that the EU forced on us, and, in fact, the EU disallows this size. (Full range of allowed sizes is on the USMA site for the US.)

    Also taxes are figured on any size of wine or spirits. Consult the TTB page for methodology.

    Prior to the 750 mL bottle, the US used a fifth of a US gallon, and the UK a sixth of an Imperial gallon. These are all about the same size. The same physical bottle could be used with slight variation in fill. They simply “tweaked” the standard bottle of the era to a rational metric fill.

    The top part of this page jumbles old and new, but the bottom of the page (legislation) illustrates the EU and US bottle sizes for spirits. Some agree, some do not.
    http://www.diffordsguide.com/encyclopedia/2014-05-01/235/bws/bottle-sizes

    Finally, I would note that while the EU accepts 75 cl (for wine) the US requires labeling in milliliters below 1L, and in liters above; centiliters are non-compliant.

    What IS interesting is that TTB (latest name of ATF) requires metric for wine and spirits, and requires Customary net contents for beer and the like.

  2. UNITY in measurement!

    Not only should UNITY have a better ring for the American people than UNIFORMITY, it seems to me to be a more accurate goal for U.S. measurement—unity of thought on measurement. That is, we all measure together with the same units.

    Huh? Same units, in America? A famous tea kettle that hangs near City Hall Plaza in Boston proudly displays its legacy-unit capacity: 227 gallons, 2 quarts, 1 pint, 3 gills. Public measurement in America has far more romance than rigor, and this may be our metrological trap. Bastard be he who interferes with this near act of lovemaking!

    England bears this out in the claw marks it has left on the imperial pint of brew. Metric consumer products notwithstanding, the Brits dare not quaff six tenths of a liter. Why, that’s frigidly continental!

    I walk the aisles of my American grocery stores, and going down the soft drink section, I get confounded. There, we we have 222 mL, 237 mL, 500 mL, 1 L, 2 L, 3 L sizes. We have metric water, but almost no metric juices. They once peddled a 399 mL Christmas ornament filled with cola–why not go that last milliliter for hard metric? The fizzy-drink shelf tags have lately been toggling back and forth between inventorying 500 mL and 16.9 fluid-ounce sizes. Is this the land of strict standards for engineering, building codes, and medicine? Or, is it a country of stubborn children who don’t want to face up to measurement as a necessity instead of a hobby? The price we pay for measurement as a pastime clogs our inventories and our potential efficiencies.

    I just don’t think that this poetic land would lose its allure by tossing its quarts. Just maybe, by refusing to think any longer in fifths, we would once again be first.

    [corrected at the request of the author]

  3. Unfortunately, despite enlightened countries like Australia using millilitres, centilitres are quite common throughout Europe and millilitres are rarely seen.

    • And some of the most common formats, especially for beers, are 33 and 66 cl, i.e., 1/3 and 2/3 of a liter, thus essentially a decimal conversion of fractions: quite strange, indeed; and it would be interesting to know how this “customary” metric use orginated…

  4. One statement is “We’re over 50% metric in the US.” I’ve never been able to trace down any reference, or any study upon which this assertion could “hold water.”

    I believe this is a reference not to the metric usage among the public, but that used hidden behind the scenes. Internally, the medical industry is fully metric, however in the public view it is not, yet that is changing as doses are finally appearing using the millilitre.

    http://hamptonroads.com/2014/12/flu-bad-enough-without-adding-misery-metricsystem-medicine

    Obviously due to the growth in foreign companies setting up shop in the US and American companies buy foreign built machines there is a growing demand for metric hydraulic fittings and other products.

    http://www.rubbernews.com/article/20141229/NEWS/312159989/metric-systems-growth-challenges-u-s-firms

    In both the examples above, the growth of metric usage is noticeable to the point that it is irking some people and that is now newsworthy.

    Whether 50 % is a correct figure or not, metric presence is enough to irritate the Luddites, cost them profits and incur costly errors.

  5. Here is one of the most disconcerting labelings I have seen in recent years: After many years as showing clearly “1 gram (0.035 oz.)”, we now find a packet of Sweet’N Low showing “0.035 OZ. (1g)”! — !!!

    Does anyone else here know what the competing brands show on their packets?

    • Went to a grocery store today and while there checked the labels of sacks of sugar and the following artificial sweeteners; Splenda, Sweet ‘N Low and Truvia. Every one of the packages had the old wt. first, followed by the metric weight enclosed in parentheses.

  6. Found some Truvia sweetener my wife uses and it has the following: Net WT 0.173 OZ (3.5g).

  7. I did check and the Bridgestone forecast was in Fahrenheit.

  8. Woodie C and Others:
    Did you click on the link I gave? If so, then here’s what it gives (pasted here):

    BRIDGESTONE FORECAST

    CLEAR
    HI 2°C / LO -3°C

    Now back to the game, where the actual temp at the start of it was between 6 and 7 degrees Celsius. (Not unexpectedly, it was given as 44 degrees Fahrenheit on NBC at the start, but it’s doubtful it was given as such on whatever network in Canada is carrying the game.)

  9. Dave B; I just now clicked again on the link that you gave and it shows in two areas of the site that the temp is in Fahrenheit. Could the advertiser, Bridgestone, have changed it? I wish that it was given in Celsius. Are you in Canada? A most beautiful country may I say as one who has visited there on several occasions. I really enjoyed seeing the road signs and other measurements, such as on bottles of REAL maple syrup in metric units.

    • I also clicked the link and got °F. I wonder if it senses location and autoswitches? I could not find a “preference” switch.

      • I’m in Australia so I clicked on the link and got Hi1degree, Lo -4 degree. It looks like the site detects your location.

        The forecast for Sydney is min 22 max 31, by the way.

  10. Have you thought publishing an article on why our educators and educational Administrators at all levels are reluctant to give even more information to our students and to the community? I have been humiliated, insulted, offended trying to spread the word on the significant of metric units in the State of Florida.

  11. “…proposed six metric-standard bottle sizes to take effect…”
    “… These sizes are 50, 100, 200, 375 (355 for cans), 500 (until June 1989), 750, 1000, and 1750 mL.”

    Someone can’t count.

  12. The liter, being based on the decimeter, is one of those units that aren’t entirely coherent with a “purist” (see Naughtin, the Maven and others) metric concept, i.e., one where only SI prefixes by the thousands are used: but it’s probably here to stay anyway, as are the deci, centi, deca and hecto prefixes.

    Fractions also seem to be widely used, in the wine and beer bottle format, also for historical reasons: so, we could even imagine extending the “deci” prefix concept, by incorporating fractional prefixes; for example (here with Latin as a base): demi (BTW, an original metric system prefix), terti, quarti, quinti, sexti, septi, octi, noni, deci (the same as today’s), undeci, duodeci, and so on…

    So, for example, 1/4 liter wine bottle or amphora would be a quartiliter of wine; a 66 cl beer bottle would be 2 tertiliters of beer; etc. etc.

    Of course, not a necessity: fractions don’t really need metric prefixes; but if this – in general (not only for liquids) – could contribute towards making metric more intuitive (and fractions are quite intuitive, at least from a geometrical point of view) for some people (like in everyday life in the US), why not?

    The important thing is, rather, that the SI prefixes are used in their full range in everyday life – which sadly is far from reality, even in countries that metricated long ago (for example, megameters are seldom if ever used, sadly)…

    • Ooops – not amphora, but carafe, of course…

      (For example, in Italy, available, among others, in 1/4 liter size, also known as a “quartino”.)

    • Wine and spirits are one of the few products in the US requiring standard sizes. The sizes and labeling are already decided as a matter of law (borrowing from USMA website):
      *In general, wine must be packaged in one of the standard sizes — 50 mL, 100 mL, 187 mL, 375 mL, 500 mL, 750 mL, 1 L, 1.5 L, 3 L, and larger integral multiples of liters.
      *In general, distilled spirits must be packaged in one of the standard sizes — 50 mL, 100 mL, 200 mL, 375 mL, 750 mL, 1 L, and 1.75 L — except for cans, whose standard sizes are 50 mL, 100 mL, 200 mL, and 355 mL. (The 355 mL is the only unique can size).

      • Hopefully, there will be worldwide standards, sooner or later…

        BTW, it also looks like beer sizes aren’t yet as standardized as wines and liquors.

        Anyway, in a really globalized world, all “technical” things should ideally be as standardized as possible (while of course human creativity should be as free and diversified as possible), across all the regions of the planet (and beyond, in the future)…

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