A 750 ml bottle of liquor is called a “fifth” due to the historical origins of alcohol bottle sizes in the United States. When alcohol bottles were standardized in the late 19th century, a common bottle size was one-fifth of a US gallon, which equals 750 ml. This gives the 750 ml bottle the nickname “fifth”.
The History of Fifth Bottles
In the early 1800s, alcohol was sold in whatever sized bottles or containers distillers and rectifiers chose to use. This resulted in no consistency or standards for bottle sizes. However, in the late 19th century there was a push to standardize bottle sizes for both distillers and consumers. This began with wine and champagne producers standardizing on bottle sizes in the 1860s and 1870s.
In 1870, the US Treasury Department was tasked with finding a standard set of bottle sizes to use for taxation purposes. The Treasury Department consulted with major distillers and rectifiers who recommended using bottle sizes based on fractions of a US gallon. The most common 5 sizes were:
- 1/10 gallon (350 ml)
- 1/8 gallon (430 ml)
- 1/6 gallon (480 ml)
- 1/5 gallon (750 ml) – commonly called a “fifth”
- 1/4 gallon (950 ml)
The one-fifth gallon size, which equals 750 ml, aligned well with the common bottle sizes already in use by French brandy and Scotch whisky exporters. So the 750 ml bottle, as one-fifth of a gallon, became one of the standard bottle sizes adopted by the US Treasury Department in 1872.
Why the Nickname “Fifth”?
The 750 ml bottle is called a “fifth” as a shorthand reference to being one-fifth of a US gallon. Rather than having to say “a 750 milliliter bottle” each time, it was simplified to calling it a fifth. The term caught on throughout the alcohol industry as an informal name for that bottle size.
Here is a breakdown of the standard US bottle sizes derived from fractions of a gallon and their nicknames:
|Fraction of a Gallon
As you can see, the “fifth” nickname comes from the 750 ml bottle being 1/5 of a gallon. This is why it is commonly referred to as a “fifth” in the alcohol industry.
Fifth Bottles Become Popular
Shortly after the Treasury Department standardized bottle sizes in 1872, states began passing their own laws regulating alcohol bottle sizes within their borders. This led to more widespread adoption of the standard fifth, quart, and gallon sizes across the spirits industry.
The fifth bottle size of 750ml gained popularity during Prohibition in the 1920s and early 1930s. Distillers and smugglers appreciated the small bottle size, as it was easier to transport and conceal from authorities. By the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the 750 ml fifth bottle was firmly entrenched as one of the most popular spirits bottle sizes.
The small mouth fifth bottle was convenient for bartenders to pour from when making cocktails. The United States entered World War II shortly after the end of Prohibition, and the military found the 750ml fifth size ideal for distributing spirits within their ration kits. This helped further solidify the ubiquity of the fifth bottle within the spirits industry.
Fifth Bottles Today
Nowadays, a 750ml fifth is the standard mid-sized bottle for most distilled spirits sold in the US, including vodka, rum, tequila, whiskey, and cognac. For small batch and craft spirits, fifths remain a popular size for introducing new products to the market.
In 1980, the US adopted the metric system for alcohol bottle sizes, though the old gallon-based names like fifth, quart, and half-gallon remain in use. So while a fifth is now labeled as 750ml, everyone still knows it as a fifth.
The rise of craft distilling has seen more spirits bottled in smaller 375ml or 200ml sizes. Catering to home mixologists, some brands sell 50ml and 100ml “minimis” for making cocktails. But the 750ml fifth is still considered the standard sized bottle that strikes the right balance of volume, price, and ease of use.
Fifth Bottle Sizes Around the World
While the 750ml fifth bottle is ubiquitous in the United States, other countries have standardized on different spirit bottle sizes based on their customary units of measurement.
Here are some common bottle sizes for distilled spirits globally:
|Common Bottle Size
|720 ml or 1.8 L
|750 ml or 180 ml
|500 ml or 1000 ml
So while fifth bottles are uniquely American, other countries have standardized spirits bottling based on their local forms of measurement. But the 750ml fifth remains the quintessential bottle for distilled spirits in the United States.
The Future of Fifth Bottles
Despite some competition from smaller bottle sizes, the 750ml fifth is likely to remain the standard for distilled spirits for the foreseeable future. The fifth strikes the ideal balance between volume, price, and convenience that consumers desire and distillers need for efficient production and distribution.
For bartenders and mixologists, fifths are the perfect pour size for making cocktails. The 750ml glass fifth is easy to grip and pour accurately behind the bar. The glass also shows off the product inside while protecting it from UV light damage.
Glass fifths have sustainability advantages over plastic as well. Consumers increasingly want spirits in glass rather than plastic to reduce environmental impact and for purity of flavor. Glass can also be recycled endlessly back into bottles with no degradation.
Some industry observers believe the 750ml fifth may be replaced by premixed cocktails, mini-bottles, or ready-to-drink cans and pouches. While those formats are growing, standalone fifths remain far and away the No.1 bottling size for distilled spirits. And the branding power of the iconic glass fifth bottle continues.
As long as distillers want to highlight a premium brand, the 750ml glass fifth will remain the bottle of choice. For consumers, buying a finely crafted spirit in a fifth is part of the experience. So while new formats may emerge, expect the trusted fifth size to retain its nickname and popularity behind American bars for decades to come.