By The Metric Maven
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. 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.”
If you liked this essay and wish to support the work of The Metric Maven, please visit his Patreon Page and contribute. Also purchase his books about the metric system:
The first book is titled: Our Crumbling Invisible Infrastructure. It is a succinct set of essays that explain why the absence of the metric system in the US is detrimental to our personal heath and our economy. These essays are separately available for free on my website, but the book has them all in one place in print. The book may be purchased from Amazon here.
The second book is titled The Dimensions of the Cosmos. It takes the metric prefixes from yotta to Yocto and uses each metric prefix to describe a metric world. The book has a considerable number of color images to compliment the prose. It has been receiving good reviews. I think would be a great reference for US science teachers. It has a considerable number of scientific factoids and anecdotes that I believe would be of considerable educational use. It is available from Amazon here.
The third book is called Death By A Thousand Cuts, A Secret History of the Metric System in The United States. This monograph explains how we have been unable to legally deal with weights and measures in the United States from George Washington, to our current day. This book is also available on Amazon here.