We take a look at an age old question - is drinking whisky (in moderation) actually any good for you?

Throughout history, alcohol has always been perceived to have various health benefits.

Whisky in particular, has long been held as a elixir of particular health giving veracity.

History

Scotch, and indeed whisk(e)y, in general, has always been seen as a potent drink with many health giving properties.

Given the name Uisge Beatha or the Water of Life, it was often viewed as being not only enjoyable but also useful for battling a plethora of ailments.

The famous historian and chronicler Raphaël Holinshed, who wrote extensively on the British Isles and its constituent countries, recorded in his book, the Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1577 that whisky had the following advantages:

“Being moderately taken, it slows the age, cuts phlegm, helps digestion, cures the dropsy, it heals the strangulation, keeps and preserves the head from whirling, the tongue from lisping, the stomach from womblying, the guts from rumbling, the hands from shivering, the bones from aching…and truly it is a sovereign liquor if it be orderly taken.”

Of course, his writing was typical of the age, with many around the time extolling the virtue of the beverage, and not only for ingesting; whisky was also employed as an antiseptic to clean wounds, particularly on the field of battle, where access to medical supplies was in short supply.

The connection with medicine may even have led to the common usage of the word ‘dram’ to describe a measure of whisky, a term originally used for an apothecaries’ weight.

This reputation for medicinal qualities carried forward into the 20th century, leading to perhaps one of our favourite stories.

During Prohibition in the 1920s, Scotch, could legally be imported into the United States because it was considered a medicine, not a liquor.

This meant that people could effectively buy whisky from a pharmacy and claim they were using it (in small doses) as a tonic.

“A person may, without a permit, purchase and use liquor for medicinal purposes when prescribed by a physician as herein provided.” – Volstead Act [1920]

Predictably, many of these pharmacies took advantage of this ‘legal loophole’, with one brand in particular massively successful in doing so.

In 1919 and before Prohibition, Walgreens founder Charles R. Walgreen had around 20 stores, however, after Prohibition in 1929, the pharmacy brand had expanded to well over 525 outlets, with much of this success reportedly being attributed to sales of whisky ‘for medicinal consumption’.

The benefits

So what are the actual benefits of drinking whisky (in moderation)?

Well according to a vast array of literature and studies, whisky can:

Aid in weight loss – Whisky has no fat and very little sodium. It has also been shown that moderate intake increases energy and decreases the desire for sugar.

Help to prevent diabetes – It has been reported that drinking moderate amounts of whisky over an extended period can help the body’s ability to regulate insulin and glucose levels, thereby lowering the possibility of contracting type 2 diabetes.

Prevent cancer – Whisky has high levels of ellagic acid, one of the most powerful consumable antioxidant compounds that is extremely effective in reducing free radicals, a harmful byproduct that can lead to cancer.

Help to reduce the risk of stroke – Whisky’s blood-thinning properties means a dram or two can help to lower the chance of blood clots and by extension, strokes.

Lowers stress – Alcohol, of which whisky certainly has high concentrations of, is also useful for relieving stress by helping the brain to cope with anxiety and tension disclaimer – While there may be some evidence drinking alcohol can initially relieve stress, drinking over a prolonged period can actually increase anxiety, so once again we ask that you enjoy it responsibly. 

Helps to lower risk of dementia – Another knock on effect from the consumption of ellagic acid is that Studies have shown that it can  reduce your chances of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease by once again reducing those harmful free radicals which can disrupt neural pathways.

Aids digestion – Whisky has been drunk as a digestif for centuries. Who are we to argue?

The Evidence

In 1998, the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, found that both whisky and red wine helped to protect against coronary heart disease by raising the body’s level of anti-oxidants.

These antioxidants were found to come from the oak barrels in which whisky is stored during the maturation process. They are beneficial because they help to counteract destructive chemicals in the blood known as free radicals, which hasten the ageing process and damage tissue.

While another study published in the British Medical Journal found that whisky in small doses could help protect against heart disease, as well as being shown to reduce the likelihood of strokes and cataracts.

The key to long life? 

Many centenarians swear by Scotch as the key to their longevity, at the end of last year, the UK’s oldest woman, Grace Jones, who is 110, declared: “Whisky is very good for you.

“I started having a nightly tot of it when I turned 50, so I’ve been having it every night for the last 60 years and I certainly have no intention of stopping now.

“My doctor said ‘keep up with the whisky Grace, it’s good for your heart’.”

In 2010, Research Society on Alcoholism released their findings from a study in which they discovered that middle-aged and older adult moderate drinkers had a lower overall mortality rate than heavy drinkers or even non-drinkers.

A tale of caution

All of these benefits sound wonderful and it would not be unreasonable to assume that drinking whisky can only be good for you, but it is important to remember that all of these benefits are only gained by drinking in moderation and as part of a healthy diet.

Drinking in higher quantities comes with its own risks and problems, many of which far outweigh the good side.

Abuse of spirits like Scotch can lead to alcoholism and cirrhosis of the liver, which seriously diminishing the livers effectiveness of flushing the body of toxins and leading to long term health problems.

About The Author

Sean Murphy

Driven by a passion for all things drinks-related, Sean writes for The Scotsman extensively on the subject. He can also sometimes be found behind the bar at the world famous Potstill bar in Glasgow where he continues to enhance his whisky knowledge built up over 10 years advising customers from all over the world on the wonders of our national drink. Recently, his first book was published. Dubbed Gin Galore, it explores Scotland's best gins and the stories behind those that make them.

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