What is a healthy alcoholic drink? If you follow trends, you might have heard claims about White Claw, the sparkling seltzer that has caused a torrent over the summer, inspiring memes, bro-love and empty shelves in liquor stores where it’s experiencing shortages. Though White Claw has no discernible health-related attributes, the fact that it’s gluten-free, low-carb and doesn’t contain artificial sweeteners has purportedly made it “healthier” than higher-calorie, artificially flavored counterparts.
Some beer and spirit brands are pushing alcoholic drinks as restoratives. Beers such as Sufferfest are targeted to runners after marathons. And a new brand of vodka infused with licorice root, mannitol and potassium sorbate claimed to provide a host of risk-reducing effects on the drinker ranging from providing “antioxidant support” to protecting our DNA from the effects of alcohol. Perhaps unsurprisingly, both the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau and the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia found those claims wanting.
This fad is showing up in cocktails, too.
Kara Newman discussed the publicity onslaught of “wellness” cocktails such as the wheatgrass margarita this year in Wine Enthusiast magazine. It’s an idea she takes issue with. “I don’t care if there’s one shot of wheatgrass juice or 20 in there,” she wrote. “If it contains an ounce-and-a-half of Tequila, as this margarita recipe did, it’s not a ‘wellness’ tool.”
Americans have been convinced of certain beverages’ healthful benefits before. Colonial Americans believed beer was nourishing, even healthy. They gave it to man, woman and child. They dipped toast in it. It was considered breakfast, and a shade healthier than contaminated water.
A signer of the Declaration of Independence, and the father of American psychiatry, Dr. Benjamin Rush, spuriously set out a distinction between types of liquor and their resultant effects in his Moral and Physical Thermometer diagram from “An Inquiry into the Effects of Spirituous Liquors on the Human Body and the Mind,” in 1790. Rush determined that beer, wine and cider encouraged “health, wealth, and serenity of mind,” while punch, various mixed drinks and rum lead to “obscenity, fraud and, anarchy.” (I’m not saying these spirits never lead to those things, but these consequences are not inevitable.)
They even considered the cocktail a hangover cure before it became the very cause of our hangovers. An early mention of the word “cocktail” appears in the the Farmer’s Cabinet on April 28, 1803: “Drank a glass of cocktail—excellent for the head. … Call’d at the Doct’s. found Burnham — he looked very wise — drank another glass of cocktail.”
It may well be true that are some alcoholic beverages are healthier for you than others, though alcohol itself has the same effects across the board when in equal measure — spirits, wine and beer. But how we consume them, the alcohol content and what else is in the product could have better or worse implications depending on the pour. I’m just not sure that matters.
Why does alcohol have to be healthy? Why can’t it just be recreational?
It would be wonderful to think we can drink ourselves to health, but I prefer to separate the two and drink because it’s sociable and fun, and exercise or eat well because it sustains my ability to partake of that enjoyment. I’m perfectly fine with pouring a dram that does nothing for me other than taste good and provide a pleasant affect. And working out and eating healthy with the reward of a good drink in mind seem to be plenty motivation to order salad and hit the gym.
No matter how much we try to connect alcohol and health, the better idea is to realize that as healthy adults we can take a little poison with our plant-based diets and push-ups. If we love to drink, then let us drink for drink’s sake. Let’s just do it in moderation. Besides, no amount of healthful benefits — even if the drink worked out for me and paid my doctor’s office co-pay — will make me put wheatgrass in my margarita or forsake a well-made martini for a can of what amounts to alcohol and air.