Whisky – is it really “livets vatten”?

For the drinkers out there it was a while since we covered the alcoholic beverages beer and wine in previous blogs. So you will be happy to see that the focus today is whisky. I use the Scottish spelling and since the Scottish brew might have been influenced by an influx of Scandinavian vikings I allude to the Swedish expression “livets vatten”. But similar to the chicken and egg conundrum, on the contrary it might be that the Swedes translated the gaelic “uisge beatha” which actually means water of life. Or more likely both expressions might come from the Latin “aqua vitae” with the same meaning.

So what is whisky?

Whisky might be good for you (Photo: vissago)

Whisky might be good for you (Photo: vissago)

Whisky is a strictly regulated spirit worldwide with many classes and types. The typical unifying characteristics of the different varieties are the fermentation of grains, distillation, and ageing in wooden barrels. Italy, again, was at the forefront in the art of distillation with the earliest records where alcohol was distilled from wine dating from the 13th century. As most things alcoholic, its use spread through medieval monasteries, largely for purported medicinal purposes. From here the Irish beat the Scots in being the first to produce actual whisky in 1405, with the Scots almost a century late with their first records dating from 1494.

To be honest the first outputs from the attempts to make whisky were not very enjoyable. The distillation process was still in its infancy and the whisky was not allowed to age. As a result it tasted very raw and brutal compared to today’s versions. Renaissance-era whisky was also very potent and not diluted. Over time whisky evolved into the much smoother drink that we can enjoy today. People all over the world make and drink the different varieties of whisky, and each whisky has a distinct taste. Some of the differences might come from the grain used which can be rye, barley, wheat or corn.

But is it the water of life?

Although any type of alcohol can be deadly in excess, the medical community has found some health benefits to drinking moderate amounts of alcohol, especially whisky. A large shot of whisky can help protect against heart disease, scientists have claimed. They found that both whisky and red wine helped to protect against coronary heart disease by raising the body’s level of antioxidants. And as an interesting fact for the whisky lovers more of the protective compounds were absorbed from drinking whisky. Researchers also claim that drinking the equivalent of three or four pub measures of the spirit can boost the body’s general defences against disease.

No need to go overboard though, the scientists found that the benefit was achieved by drinking just once a week. So as usual alcohol should be enjoyed in moderation to accumulate the beneficial effects. And maybe not by all. Common public health advice is that any alcohol, if you drink as little as one to two units a day, can protect against coronary heart disease. But this is relevant only if you are in a risk group, such as menopausal women or men over 40 years who are prone to heart trouble.

Some more specific facts

Ellagic acid migrate from oak casks to whisky (Photo: peridude)

Ellagic acid migrate from oak casks to whisky (Photo: peridude)

People in the risk groups who consume one or two alcoholic drinks daily, including whisky, have a 50 % lower chance of having a stroke or developing dementia in old age. This moderate amount of drinking can also decrease the chance of developing diabetes by 30 to 40 %. Alcohol contains ellagic acid, an antioxidant that also is believed to destroy cancerous cells.

Ellagic acid is a natural phenol antioxidant found in numerous fruits and vegetables. The highest levels of ellagic acid are found in blackberries, cranberries, pecans, pomegranates, raspberries, strawberries, walnuts, wolfberry and grapes. Ellagic acid is also found in oak species like the North American white oak and European red oak and migrate to whisky during the ageing process in oak barrels. According to scientists whisky contains more ellagic acid than other types of alcohol.

The downside

An important reminder though if you have to look after your waist line. Alcoholic beverages of all sorts have a high energy content. Although there are many different recipes for beer with varying calorie content, a typical can of beer can be estimated to contain 150 calories. A standard restaurant glass of wine has around 123 calories. This could be compared to a shot of 80-proof whisky (confusingly 40 % alcohol) that contains 65 calories. On a volume basis whisky contains more calories than beer and wine. However, a typical serving of beer is many times the size of a serving of whisky. By that measure “a beer” has more calories than “a whisky.” Wine is comfortably in the middle by both measures.

And if you are going out to brag about the ellagic acid content of whisky with your mates be warned. The beneficial findings of ellagic acid to health is still preliminary. So some caution might be in place until the findings have been endorsed by the appropriate authorities.

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