Can Whisky Strengthen Your Immune System?

Old 1800s Medicinal (Medical) Whiskey Barrel

Old 1800s Medicinal (Medical) Whiskey Barrel


The spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, is having a predictable and catastrophic consequence on the travel, leisure and hospitality industries, as well as on the beverage industry that depends on those sectors. The full economic, human and social ramifications of the strategy of “social distancing” to slow down the spread of the viral epidemic on the beverage industry are unknown but they will be widespread and potentially devastating.

Most whisky distilleries around the world are continuing to operate. Many on premise accounts, like bars and restaurants, are temporarily closed. Those facilities that are still open are seeing significant reductions in customers. On premise sales in the U.S. in 2018 amounted to around $113 billion, about 47% of alcohol sales. The impact on the $130 billion in off premise alcohol sales is unclear.

According to Rosie Willmot, of the Scotch Whisky Association, the decision to close visitor centers is being left to the individual distilleries, but that,

Our companies are working with local authorities in the UK and in export markets to ensure we are playing our full role in helping to contain the virus in affected countries.

According to various industry sources, however, all visitor centers at distilleries in Scotland have closed. The Speyside Whisky Festival, Scotland’s largest, and Islay’s Feis Ile have both been cancelled. as have scores of similar events throughout the world.

William Lavelle, the president of the Irish Whiskey Association, has also confirmed that Irish whiskey distilleries have shuttered their visitor facilities, adding:

The present may be tough. But the future is still bright for Irish whiskey and Irish whiskey tourism.

Most Canadian, Japanese and U.S. distilleries have also closed their visitor centers or have announced plans to do so.

Robert Cassell, the President of the 130+ member Pennsylvania Distillers Guild & Co-Founder New Liberty Distillery, for example, has confirmed that his members’ facilities “are closed to the public”.

The Guild has gone one step further, joining other distillers around the world, inducing French beverage giant Pernod-Ricard, in using their distillation capacity to produce hand sanitizer. The Pennsylvania distillers are aiming to deliver more than 1 million bottles of sanitizer within the next 10 days

Although we don’t generally think of the distilling industry as being part of the travel industry, distillery visits have become an important element of the beverage industry. Not only does distillery tourism play an important role in brand promotion and marketing, but it has become a lucrative sideline, especially for smaller distilleries.

The visitor's center of the Jack Daniel's distillery.

The visitor’s center of the Jack Daniel’s distillery.

picture alliance via Getty Images

In 2019, for example, the number of visitors to distilleries exceeded 10 million. Irish distilleries had over one million visitors, while Scotch whisky producers logged over two million visitors. Tennessee distilleries had over five million. Kentucky distillers reported around two million visitors, although that number is probably understated. The Bourbon Trail alone counted over one million visitors. Add in visitors to distilleries in Japan and Canada, as well as those to craft distilleries in the U.S. and elsewhere, and the number of whisky tourists easily exceeds 10 million.

With the average distillery visit contributing around $50 per visit, whisky tourism easily generates a half billion dollars in sales for the worldwide whisky industry. Add in expenditures for hotels, meals, travel expenses and whisky tourism has become a multi-billion dollars sector for the whisky industry and their surrounding communities. All that activity is in hiatus for the foreseeable future and that is just one element of the beverage/distilling industry.

In the meantime, I’m home. Just returned from a European trip, fortunately before the airlines shut down the bulk of their international flights. In self-quarantine for the next two weeks.

I’ve been hoping that one of these days the Center for Disease Control, or some other government agency, would announce that whisky can be used to treat COVID-19 or that it will prove to be an effective vaccine. Yes, I realize that’s not going to happen, but hope springs eternal. In the meantime, I’ve narrowed down my choice of medicinal whisky. Time to start drinking one of those bottles that I’ve been saving all these years for a special occasion.

Let’s see, there is the Macallan 25 YO from the 1980s, or the impossible to find 25 YO Lagavulin issued to mark the 200-anniversary of the distillery. Then there is the 40 YO Glenfarclas (my retirement whisky) or my all-time favorite, the 25 YO Gordon and MacPhail sherry cask matured Linkwood. In a pinch, there’s always the Pappy to fall back on! Hard to know which will have the best therapeutic value. May have to sample them all to be sure.

I suppose that any one of them would make an effective hand sanitizer, but that would be a waste of damn fine whisky.

Not all is lost, though. That stash of whisky you’ve been saving all these years may have some medicinal value after all.

Prescriptions for Medicinal Spirits from 1924

Prescriptions for Medicinal Spirits from 1924

Photo courtesy, WIkipedia

Several years ago, researchers at the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) in Portland, Oregon, investigated the impact of moderate alcohol consumption on the human immune system.

They trained 12 rhesus macaque monkeys to consume a mixture of four percent alcohol. Rhesus monkeys have immune systems comparable to those of humans and are often used to test the effects of drugs on the human immune system.

The monkeys were subsequently vaccinated against smallpox and divided into two groups. One group continued to receive the weak alcohol drink and the other group did not. Surprisingly, those monkeys that had access to alcohol showed human like patterns of consumption. Some monkeys drank repeatedly to excess, while others drank the alcohol solution occasionally and in moderation.

After seven months, the monkeys were inoculated a second time with the smallpox vaccine. Typically, the inoculation should produce a surge of antibodies by the monkey’s immune system. The researchers got an unexpected result. Those monkeys that drank alcohol to excess failed to produce a surge of antibodies. Those monkeys that drank in moderation, however, produced more antibodies than the control group that received no alcohol.

OK, it’s not exactly the announcement I was looking for, but the conclusion that moderate whisky consumption might strengthen your immune system does raise a lot of interesting questions.

Do ultra-aged whiskies have a more pronounced therapeutic effect than younger whiskies? How does Scotch stack up to Irish, Japanese, Canadian or American whiskey? Will Islay’s heavily peated, medicinal tasting whiskies prove better for the immune system than Speyside’s sherry matured offerings? How does Tennessee whiskey compare to bourbon? Are triple distilled Irish pot still whiskeys better for boosting immunity than their double distilled brethren? What about cask strength whiskies? Do they give your immune system a bigger boost?

Gilbert And Parsons' Hygienic Whiskey

Gilbert And Parsons’ Hygienic Whiskey

Getty Images

I can see that more extensive research will be needed. Fortunately, right now I have both the time and the whisky to start immediately. More importantly, does this mean that I can write off my next bottle of whisky as a medical expense? Will I need to find a doctor that will prescribe a bottle of Pappy 23 YO or the 30 YO Laphroaig? That wouldn’t be the first time that doctors have prescribed “medicinal whisky.”

COVID-19 is no laughing matter. We will get through this viral epidemic, albeit at a frightful human and economic cost. Whether moderate whisky consumption will help bolster your immune system is debatable. In reasonable quantities, it probably won’t hurt. Seems like a good reason to open that bottle of exceptional whisky that you’ve been saving. Just remember to leave some in the bottle for the day that you can share it with a friend.


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