The Ancient Celts called whisky uisge beatha(pronounced: oosh-ga bah) a fiery drink, considered medicinal, that prolonged life and provided relief for colicky infants, as well as those suffering from smallpox and a host of other ailments. In short, whisky use extended from the cradle to the grave, reviving tired bodies and warming downcast spirits, while providing a welcome to wayward travellers and other guests.
These medicinal references continued into the 20th century. One story told by Sean Murphy in an article in the ScotsmanFood + Drink(2017) mentioned:
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 . 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’.
What’s 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 antioxidants. One such antioxidants is ellagic acid, a natural phenol found in numerous fruits and vegetables. Ellagic is discovered in North American white oak and European red oak barrels in which whisky is stored. These antioxidants help to counteract destructive chemicals in the blood known as free radicals, which hasten the ageing process and damage tissue.
Where’s the proof?
In September 2016, Grace Jones, who was had turned 110 years of age, 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’.” Her whisky of choice is Famous Grouse. In September 2017, she turned 111 years of age and from recent reports is still tipping back her nightly tot.
So…is it medicinal or is it lore?
It’s all in the dram and whether you drink to appreciate or enjoy. For many, a single malt is something to enjoy however it is served. For others, they have learned that there is more than enjoyment in a dram. There is a spirit within that leads to appreciating what is discovered between the nose and palette – whether medicinal or lore. This is the aqua vitae we have come to know.