/ Overview

Ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, is part of the family of alcohols (methanol, propanol and butanol). It is a flammable, colourless, volatile and slightly toxic liquid with a very distinctive odour.


Ethanol is traditionally produced biologically by the fermentation of sugar – making it a chemical compound known to civilisation for several millennia. (Beer brewing, drawing on the fermentation of sugar has been documented as far back as ancient Mesopotamia, although the Egyptians were the first to develop an actual distillation process.) Today, ethanol can also be produced synthetically from petrochemical feedstock.


Beyond its historical role in the production of drinks, ethanol has multiple roles today:

  • It is an attractive, clean burning fuel, used neat or as an additive to gasoline. It can also be used for heating.
  • A powerful solvent, it is widely used in several industrial applications.
  • It is widely used in the production of cosmetic toiletries, perfumes and aerosols.
  • A reliable antiseptic, it has several pharmaceutical applications.
  • It is a staple of the food industry, notably for the production of vinegar (often viewed as an industrial application).


Different grades of ethanol are used in different applications: Low-grade or ‘bad taste’ alcohol is suitable for heating applications. High-purity fermentation alcohol is valuable in the production of white alcohol brands, liqueurs and aperitifs (synthetic alcohol is never used in the drinks industry). Some applications may require alcohol to be rectified through an additional distillation process, dehydrated or denatured (see About Ethanol – Production).

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