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Why Is a Liquor's Proof Double Its Percentage Alcohol by Volume?

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As any high schooler who has incisively compared bottles in his or her parents' liquor cabinet can tell you, a spirit's proof is exactly twice as much as its percentage of alcohol by volume. Why bother using this 0-200 scale? Because history, of course.

"Proof," as it's used in regards to booze, harkens back to when traders would have to literally prove that their hooch was the real deal. According to the University of Cincinnati's William B. Jensen, in 16th century England, traders would drench a pellet of gunpowder in liquor to determine the spirit's potency. "If it was still possible to ignite the wet gunpowder, the alcohol content of the liquor was rated above proof and it was taxed at a higher rate, and vice versa if the powder failed to ignite.”

While the term "proof" stuck, in America, the standard it refers to has nothing to do with gunpowder. Around 1848, 50% alcohol by volume was chosen as a baseline and 100 was used as its corresponding proof. Thus, the proof is double the ABV.

In other countries, other proof systems are used. For example, in 1816 the U.K. started to use gravity as their standard. The Customs and Excise Act states that 100 proof liquors are "those in which the weight of the spirits is 12/13 the weight of an equal volume of distilled water at 51° F (11° C)." The proof then comes out to be about 1.75 times the alcohol by volume percentage. All that math could drive someone to drink.

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Big Questions
Why Does Turkey Make You Tired?
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Why do people have such a hard time staying awake after Thanksgiving dinner? Most people blame tryptophan, but that's not really the main culprit. And what is tryptophan, anyway?

Tryptophan is an amino acid that the body uses in the processes of making vitamin B3 and serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep. It can't be produced by our bodies, so we need to get it through our diet. From which foods, exactly? Turkey, of course, but also other meats, chocolate, bananas, mangoes, dairy products, eggs, chickpeas, peanuts, and a slew of other foods. Some of these foods, like cheddar cheese, have more tryptophan per gram than turkey. Tryptophan doesn't have much of an impact unless it's taken on an empty stomach and in an amount larger than what we're getting from our drumstick. So why does turkey get the rap as a one-way ticket to a nap?

The urge to snooze is more the fault of the average Thanksgiving meal and all the food and booze that go with it. Here are a few things that play into the nap factor:

Fats: That turkey skin is delicious, but fats take a lot of energy to digest, so the body redirects blood to the digestive system. Reduced blood flow in the rest of the body means reduced energy.

Alcohol: What Homer Simpson called the cause of—and solution to—all of life's problems is also a central nervous system depressant.

Overeating: Same deal as fats. It takes a lot of energy to digest a big feast (the average Thanksgiving meal contains 3000 calories and 229 grams of fat), so blood is sent to the digestive process system, leaving the brain a little tired.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
How Are Balloons Chosen for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade?
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The balloons for this year's Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade range from the classics like Charlie Brown to more modern characters who have debuted in the past few years, including The Elf On The Shelf. New to the parade this year are Olaf from Disney's Frozen and Chase from Paw Patrol. But how does the retail giant choose which characters will appear in the lineup?

Balloon characters are chosen in different ways. For example, in 2011, Macy’s requested B. Boy after parade organizers saw the Tim Burton retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. (The company had been adding a series of art balloons to the parade lineup since 2005, which it called the Blue Sky Gallery.) When it comes to commercial balloons, though, it appears to be all about the Benjamins.

First-time balloons cost at least $190,000—this covers admission into the parade and the cost of balloon construction. After the initial year, companies can expect to pay Macy’s about $90,000 to get a character into the parade lineup. If you consider that the balloons are out for only an hour or so, that’s about $1500 a minute.

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