Can you use alcohol to get a charcoal grill started?
Hmmm…let’s assume you’re not using charcoal already infused with lighter fluid, like Kingsford Matchlight briquets.
Okay, you’re out of lighter fluid, but you’ve got briquettes, uncooked food, and a hungry crowd out in the backyard watching your every move.
Let’s also assume you don’t have kindling or a chimney starter. The big thing now is, you’re used to having lighter fluid to start your grill—and you don’t have any.
Why, I heard you all asking? Because what you have is alcohol.
“Hey, alcohol is flammable and I should be able to start the grill with it… right?”
Not so fast. Everything depends on the type of alcohol. You also have to remember you only need to get enough flame to start the grill, not keep it going.
This means you need the right kind of alcohol, the kind that burns hot enough to avoid repeated saturation of the briquets. You don’t need gasoline or jet fuel.
So, let’s take a look at the alcohol you can start a grill with and why.
The Kind of Alcohol Matters
This is the most important part of the equation when it comes to using alcohol to get a grill started:
The type of alcohol.
You can’t just stroll out to the grill and dump a Margarita on your coals and expect them to ignite with the help of a lighter. Heck, doing that is a waste of a good Margarita!
When it comes to using alcohol, you want to use alcohol that’s as pure as possible. That means nothing that’s mixed. Nothing with ice. No liqueurs. And nothing that’s been watered down, so no beer or wine.
What you need is a product that’s at least 50% alcohol by volume (ABV).
Why is this important?
The higher the ABV, the higher the alcohol content, clearly. It also means once lit, the alcohol spends less time burning off moisture (the other 50% or less of the mixture) and can focus on lighting other things. In this case, the briquettes.
For example, if you have a product that’s 50% alcohol, when ignited, it’ll burn off the other 50% (which is water) before focusing all of its attention on your coals.
Yes, that’s a very basic way of breaking down the chemical process occurring, but it’s essentially what’s happening. The higher the alcohol content, the less water that needs to be evaporated first.
Hey, My Liquor Is 80-Proof!
The number behind your alcohol proof and the actual alcohol content in your liquor of choice are not the same thing.
That’s right, your 80-proof whiskey doesn’t contain 80% ABV. Instead, it only contains 40% alcohol.
When it comes to using alcohol to start a grill, the proof is important to know if you’re using liquor as a starter. Remember to divide the proof by 2 to know the actual alcohol content. And also remember, you’re looking for at least 50% ABV.
That 80-proof whiskey you have may not be enough when it comes to ABV. Time to go up a shelf at your liquor store and grab that 100-proof bottle. At least now, you have an excuse to get the higher proof variety!
So, what is the best liquor to use for starting a grill, not ruin your party by using up the supply, and save your cookout?
That would be Everclear.
It’s a grain alcohol that comes in as high as 190-proof (95% ABV), although that variety is illegal in some places. Besides being one of the most potent spirits out there, it’s also utilized for disinfecting and fuel alcohol for stoves since it burns cleanly without a lingering odor.
If, however, you’re looking to keep a bottle of booze as an emergency back-up and possible mixer down the road, you can’t go wrong with Bacardi 151 rum. At 75.5% ABV, you’ve got a liquor that tops the 50% threshold and can still be enjoyed by others without being confused with paint thinner.
In the 18th century, merchants would test barrels of alcohol coming off of ships by mixing a little booze with a pinch of gunpowder. If it ignited, it’d make a “proof” sound, letting the tester know that half the barrel contained alcohol.
Can Other Alcohol Be Used?
If you don’t have any liquor with a high-enough proof number, there are, of course, other options.
You may not need to look any further than your first aid cabinet or shelf. If you’ve got rubbing alcohol, you should be able to start your grill even easier than 100-proof whiskey can.
The reason for this is because rubbing alcohol naturally has a higher ABV than most other products. Because it’s not meant for consumption, it’s not as watered down and more concentrated for the specific reason of acting as a disinfectant. Rubbing alcohol will usually come in at an ABV of at least 70% and at most 91%.
If you’re looking to use something that is as effective as rubbing alcohol but doesn’t have the odor of a freshly cleaned hospital room, you can try denatured alcohol.
It’s a clean burning fuel that’s very often used for alcohol stoves. It can also be used as a cleaner, similar to mineral spirits. If you don’t have any on hand, you can easily find some at your hardware store in the same areas as paint thinner.
The good news with any of these options is they’re all as effective as lighter fluid without the fuel taste.
Kindling or a Chimney Starter
If you have either kindling or a chimney starter, you can probably avoid the use of alcohol all together.
With a chimney starter, all you need is some twisted paper placed on the bottom. You should only need a flame to light the paper and get the coals going.
If you only have kindling, like paper, without a chimney starter, consider using vegetable oil on the paper. It’ll burn slower and get the briquests started all the same. Just be sure to place the kindling in and around the coals.
And if you’re really in a bind, dryer lint makes great kindling, too.
Running out of lighter fluid isn’t a barbeque show stopper.
With a little alcohol with the right ABV, you’ll have your briquets started in no time. You just need to be sure the alcohol content is above 50% and you should be good to go.
And if you have rubbing or denatured alcohol, consider using them and save the booze for the party.