How ‘Slainte’ is whisky?

One of the first things many ‘novices’ learn about whisky is the fact that the word is derived from the Gaelic phrase “uisge beatha”, meaning ‘water of life’. And then there’s the traditional toast “Sláinte mhath”, which means something like ‘good health’. This suggests that people used to think that whisky was some sort of medieval sports drink that provided various health benefits.

However, modern medical science has provided a few different insights. In fact, you don’t even need scientific research to find out that there can be a darker side to alcohol. Consuming a few drams of whisky might make you FEEL invincible for a few hours, but once ‘the morning after’ has arrived you might feel differently. By that time your liver has converted most of the ethanol in the whisky into ‘acetaldehyde’ – a substance with several negative effects. And even if you’ve managed to avoid a hangover, there’s always the chance that the intoxication has lead you to do or say something that the sober version of yourself could very well frown upon or even regret.

And those are just some short term effects. While moderation can certainly help to avoid many of the negative side-effects of (over)indulging, alcohol can be bad for organs like your liver and your brain. Furthermore, there’s always the spectre of addiction. So, in this case it is actually smart to follow the advice in (more recent) advertisements: enjoy whisky responsibly and in moderation if you want to keep things ‘fun’.

So, what is the most responsible way to enjoy whisky?

Well, I guess I shouldn’t generalise. One person may become giddy after just two drams while others need five or six glasses before they start to experience a buzz. It all depends on factors like genetics and one’s metabolism – not to mention drinking habits in the past. When I was still dramming almost every day, I rarely ever experienced real intoxication if I drank ‘just’ half a dozen glasses of whisky. Now that I only drink once or twice a week, two or three glasses are enough to slightly shift my perspective on the world. Perfect for me – and for my wallet. Your mileage may vary, but limiting your intake has various benefits.

Despite consuming vast quantities of whisky in my younger years, I’ve fortunately managed to avoid serious health issues (so far). The biggest ‘problem’ I had was the slowly expanding waistline that comes with too much food and drink – and not enough exercise. It was a slow decline, but things tend to add up over more than two decades. As a result, a few years ago my digital scale told me that I weighed more than 116 kilo’s (255 Imperial pounds) – and my doctor told me that a change in lifestyle was in order.

I complied. I stopped dramming altogether for a while and adopted a more balanced ‘way of life’. Instead of spending the entire evening tasting whiskies behind my PC, I started walking and cycling again – at least during Spring and Summer. The Dutch weather isn’t always conducive for outdoor activities during Autumn and Winter, but I found a way around that as well. I invested in a barbell and a few dumbbells so that I could build up some muscle again. Increasing your muscle mass boosts your metabolism, so it’s a way to burn more calories even when you’re not actively exercising.

Over the course of a few years I’ve lost most of my excess body weight. I recently dropped below 80 kilo’s (176 pounds), so I’ve now shed almost a third of my mass. I still have a few kilo’s to go, but I already feel much better. Not only that – now that I’ve adopted a more balanced lifestyle I’m free of the nagging feeling of guilt that sometimes popped up whenever I was drinking a little too much. I still enjoyed myself, mind you – I just knew that I might have to pay some kind of price later on. So, I’m dramming with a clearer conscience now – and I can heartily recommend it to everybody.

There’s just one remaining fly in the ointment. Now that I’ve resumed dramming (in moderation), my main concern is the fact that every glass of whisky contains CALORIES. There are about 150 kilo-calories in an average dram. (Well, perhaps not ‘average’ – my large cognac bowls don’t seem properly filled with less than 50-60ml.) That means that three or four glasses of whisky contain as much energy as a modest meal. I guess you could theoretically simply forego that modest meal altogether in order to limit your calory intake. However, that’s not a sustainable approach in the long run. Apart from energy, your body needs nutrients like proteins, vitamins and minerals as well. Unfortunately, whisky has little to offer in that regard. So, replacing proper food with ‘liquid meals’ is not really an option.

That leaves many people enjoying a few drams after their evening meal, ideally in a comfy chair. That’s great for winding down after a busy day – but it also leaves you with a caloric surplus at the end of the day. If you don’t find a way to use that energy, it will have turned into fat by the next morning. That’s the start of the kind of vicious circle that I have been in for years. Fortunately, there’s a way around that. I now try to combine my dramming with a brisk evening walk whenever possible. A (50-60ml) glass of whisky provides enough energy for half an hour of walking – and it can enhance your mood as well. Enjoying your whisky ‘on the go’ is not ideal for analytical tasting, but it’s a great way to negate some of the negative effects of alcohol.

That’s it for now. I realise this has turned into a bit of a rambling blog entry, but I wanted to share some of my own experiences with finding a balance between health and the enjoyment of whisky. It may seem like a boring topic, but finding a healthier way to enjoy whisky should ensure that you will be able to do so for a few years longer…

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