Does whisky improve your health? Some, dishonestly, claim it does.
Recast numerous times, vetted by health authorities and lawyers, the text concerning Sláinte never satisfied Bill Lark—who intimated that the words were actionable. In 2017, however, the contentious health claim on the label was removed. The publisher then argued that the new label made the old story moot and it was not published—or, rather—the first half was published, but the later paragraphs were redacted, leaving readers with the impression that Slainte is a health drink.
It is not.
The Health Drink: Sláinte Whisky Liqueur
350 ml of cane and malt spirit compounded with spices and bottled at 37%
Drambuie traces its origin to the 1740s, but it had precursors. Monks were infusing alcohol with herbs to create medicinal tonics in the 13th century. Drambuie also has many imitators. Local alcoholic “cordials” flavoured with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg were made by Van Diemens Land distilleries in the 19th century. At the Tasmania Distillery in the 20th century Lyn Lark made a liqueur whisky named Golden Age. Bill Lark wanted a Lark whisky liqueur and once his distillery had enough stock to blend with he asked Lyn Lark to experiment. She created Sláinte in the 21st century, its debut year was 2005.
What’s in Sláinte? Manufacturers of their alcoholic beverages rarely promote the special characteristics of their ingredients, but a few promote their secrecy. Sláinte is advertised as containing fourteen botanicals, but Lyn has not divulged the recipe even to her husband; nevertheless, he told a Sydney whisky conference that it is not sweetened with honey nor does it contain pepperberries. That’s what we know. Based on tasting notes and traditional recipes, I guess that the fourteen ingredients are: sugar, tangerine peel, cinnamon, nutmeg, star anise, cloves, cardamom, licorice, cassia bark, vanilla, black pepper, caramel, almonds and saffron. To make it, in Lyn’s trusty 80-litre copper pot still, on top of a cane spirit distilled in New South Wales, go the botanicals. This spiced admixture is compounded (re-distilled), strained, filtered and then blended with a five-year-old Lark whisky, sugar and water. (If this panoply of exotic ingredients is anywhere near correct the claim to being a “Product of Tasmania” is puzzling, moreover, strictly, Sláinte is not, as stated, a single malt, it is a “blend”.)
In Gaelic sláinte means health or wholeness and the word is frequently proposed as a toast, as Australians might say ‘To your good health!’ The circumstantial inference is that the drink itself will give you the good health. Sláinte’s back label reads: “Distilled from our finest Single Malt Whisky and married with exotic citrus and spices for your good health and pleasure.” Drinking alcohol is pleasurable, but can consuming alcohol improve your health? Many health benefits have been claimed for alcohol consumption: most notably the benefit of red wine in reducing cholesterol, but the Australian Government’s National Health and Medical Research Council concluded that “no one should take up drinking just to get health benefits” because “all alcohol’s potential health benefits have been overestimated”.*
Because it is illegal in Australia to suggest any health benefit for a product that contains alcohol, that sentence on the label is not to be read as a therapeutic claim nor should you assume that it is about your health. It is not—it is just a cheering thing to say. ‘The name is intended to be light-hearted,’ Bill Lark told me. The Cancer Council of Tasmania is not laughing. It asserts that alcohol is itself a carcinogen. Even in small amounts “there is convincing evidence that drinking alcohol increases the risk of cancers in the mouth, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, bowel and breast”. The World Health Organisation puts alcohol in the same class of carcinogens as plutonium and asbestos. Cheers.
In 2017 the Slainte label was changed (making the previous black labels collectible) and the “good health” sentence was removed; however, the central claim subsists is in the product name which remains unchanged.
* In 2018 another major health study concluded that the negative health impacts of drinking alcohol outweighed all the minor health benefits in all cases.