As viral articles tout the endless health benefits of whiskey, traditional medicine takes a more cautionary stance.

Photo by Andrea Marie Tan
Photo by Andrea Marie Tan

Whiskey has never been more fashionable than it is today. The spirit’s amber allure has weaselled its way not only into popular culture (see Don Draper’s glass below), but also into popular science, with countless articles proclaiming the miraculous health benefits of everything from single malt to Kentucky bourbon.

Among the supposed medicinal qualities of whiskey are its ability to reduce the risk of stroke, heart disease, and cancer, as well as to prolong life expectancy and reduce stress. Other proponents of whiskey claim that it can combat diabetes, improve memory, boost the immune system, and aid in weight loss. According to popular science, it would seem there is no limit to what whiskey can do—so long as it’s consumed in appropriate quantities, that is.

But that’s precisely the problem.

For years, nobody seemed to know exactly how much alcohol per day was too much. Some estimated that three drinks per day was the upper limit while maintaining good health. Others estimated it was just one drink per day. But what few seemed to disagree about was the idea that those who consume small amounts of alcohol daily actually enjoy better health than those who don’t drink at all.

I mean, that glass or two of red wine with dinner is good for you, right?

Well, according to a 2018 study published in The Lancet, there is evidence to suggest there is in fact no safe level of alcohol consumption. The study also found that men are especially at risk of death as a result of alcohol consumption, whether it be from alcohol-related cancers or alcohol-related road injuries. In light of this study, the extent to which whiskey is marketed to men becomes particularly unsettling.

An advertisement for Tin Cup bourbon, for example, shows a group of male rock climbers ascending a mountain, pounding stakes into sheer rock, sharpening axes to chop wood, dominating the rugged and untamed landscape. And their reward for reaching the summit? A dram of Tin Cup bourbon, of course.

Whiskey has come to symbolize everything good and desirable about men in western dominant culture: thick, rugged beards; powerful physiques; effortless utility; and, of course, the sophistication required to choose the right drink.

That being said, there is a time and a place for whiskey. I would be lying if I said I don’t drink it myself. But there is an important distinction to be made between drinking whiskey for enjoyment and taking it like medicine. It is shocking to read popular science articles that promote the liberal and repeated use of whiskey as a quick cure for innumerable common ailments. Sure, whiskey can reduce stress, but so can a lot of drugs.

A 2018 study published in Psychiatry Research has shown that problematic alcohol use is positively associated with more severe cases of depression, meaning that it might not be the best idea to turn to whiskey in times of psychological unease. Alcohol cravings in times of anxiety or depression are more likely strong clues that you need to seek the advice of a mental health care practitioner, not a bartender.

Again, I don’t think there is anything inherently evil about whiskey. What is evil, however, is when corporations use advertising to sell a potentially addictive substance to a vulnerable group of men. It’s like the snake-oil salesmen of the 19th century all over again, but this time it’s big alcohol corporations who stand to benefit, and popular culture seems to be on their side.