Whisky: Is it Medicinal or Simply Lore?

We frequently hear that a dram a day will extend one’s life, but how much whisky’s medicinal reputation is fact versus lore.

The ancient Celts considered whisky, which they called uisge beatha (oosh-geh-bah-ha) or ‘water of life’, to be medicinal, prolonging life, providing relief for colicky infants, as well as for those suffering from smallpox and a host of other ailments. In short, whisky was used from the cradle to the grave, reviving tired bodies, while at the same time being used as an antiseptic to clean wounds on the battlefield.

Back in 1577, the famous chronicler Raphaël Holinshed recorded that whisky had certain 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.

These medicinal references continued into the 20th century. Sean Murphy, in his article in the Scotsman Food + Drink (2017), noted that

During Prohibition in the 1920s, Scotch, could legally be imported into the United States because it was considered a medicine, not a liquor. “A person may, without a permit, purchase and use liquor for medicinal purposes when prescribed by a physician as herein provided.” – Volstead Act [1920]. In 1919 and before Prohibition, Walgreens founder Charles R. Walgreen had around 20 stores, however, after Prohibition in 1929, the pharmacy expanded to well over 525 outlets, with much of this success reportedly being attributed to sales of whisky ‘for medicinal consumption’.

So, if Whisky is Medicinal – Where’ the Proof?

In 1998, the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen conducted a study to assess the difference between the  consumption of 100ml of 1) 12-year-old whisky matured in oak casks, 2) a ‘new make’ whisky recently distilled (not matured in oak or other casks), and 3) red wine. The purpose was to measure phenolic content and antioxidant capacity in each.

The research revealed that the ‘new make’ spirit showed no change in phenolic plasma concentration.  However, both the 12-year-old oak matured whisky and red wine had phenolic content, which they concluded, helped to protect against coronary heart disease by raising the body’s level of antioxidants.

One such antioxidant, they noted, is ellagic acid, a natural phenol found in numerous fruits and vegetables. The key to this study is that ellagic is also present 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 potentially damage tissue. Free radicals are also known to interrupt neural pathways that contribute to the slow decline towards dementia, as noted in the 2003, JAMA (The Journal of the American Medical Association) article Prospective study of alcohol consumption and risk of dementia in older adults.

Single malt whisky, made from barley – a rich source of niacin, manganese and zinc – when converted into alcohol provides an anesthetic and antiseptic quality, if taken in moderation. Single malt whisky is said to contain more antioxidants than red wine. So, one might conclude that the longer the whisky is aged in oak the greater the antioxidant capacity – a subject for future research.

Blue Collar & Scholar Scotch Whiskey Tasting and Food Pairing, July 14, 2018

Islay whisky (Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Bowmore, Ardbeg, Bruichladdich etc.) has one key advantage over other whisky regions – iodine. Much of the soil of Islay has higher levels of iodine due to the abundance of peat generated through the decomposition of seaweed – a major source of iodine. Iodine is known for its disinfectant and antiviral properties and the peat, with its abundance of phenol, is an active ingredient in throat sprays and pharyngitis treatments. However, the Islay whiskies are not for everyone. As Laphroaig describes in one of their ads back in 2014, their whisky is a symphony of smoke that tastes like a burning hospital.

In concluding, W. C. Fields once offered the following advice: “Always carry a flagon of whisky in case of snakebite, and furthermore, always carry a small snake.” In truth, whisky never caught on as an antivenom, but its medicinal impact and lore lives on.

For those who already believe they have all the proof they need…we raise a dram.



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