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Maxed Out: Poring over Canada’s new alcohol guidelines

'If you tend to lead a healthy lifestyle, exercise, don’t smoke, etc., you’re likely in more danger from stressing over the new guidelines than you are to enjoy that glass of wine with your dinner or wee dram in the evening.'

In early 2020, when there was this weird viral disease in China that seemed to be spreading around the world like a bad joke, I received an email. A promotion. A come-on.

The genesis of the email occurred three years earlier at a restaurant in downtown Halifax, The Press Gang Restaurant and Oyster Bar. Having stumbled in by accident, I was immediately drawn to the sizable array of scotch whisky bottles behind the bar.

After dinner, looking over the dessert menu, my attention fixed on a flight of scotch. My kind of dessert. But the offerings were all familiar Islay, Highland and Speyside malts. I’d read about a distillery in Cape Breton that had been in business long enough to have a 19-year-old whisky. I knew Cape Breton had been populated with immigrants from Scotland in the 18th century who discovered a place that looked like their home. Naturally, they brought a taste for good whisky and the knowledge to make it with them.

So, I asked if they could put together a flight of whiskies from that distillery. They could. They did. They were impressive.

Going through Cape Breton a few days later, I detoured to the distillery, Glenora, but was too early in the morning for a tour. Not too early, though, to load a couple of 12- and 19-year-old passengers in the back of the truck. When I finally got around to trying them, they were delicious.

And that’s how, in February 2020, I opened an email from Glenora that teasingly said, “Imagine owning a whole cask of whisky.”

I’d imagined that before. Often. Initially I’d imagined importing a cask of 30-year-old whisky for my 30th birthday. I’d imagined tapping some every year to see which of us was aging better. I imagined I knew the answer to that question, but investigating it would still be worthwhile.

But the arcane liquor laws in Quebec, the fact I couldn’t speak much French to the bureaucrats I had to work with to even think of importing a barrel of scotch, and the more important fact—I’d have to rob a bank to afford it—left the quest an unrealized dream.

But I rose to Glenora’s bait like a hungry, thirsty fish. After a number of email exchanges, I convinced them I just might be serious about one of the three casks of 25-year-old whisky they were looking to sell in toto.

So they sent samples. And I set up a blind tasting. Enlisted a knowledgeable friend. Tasted. Perhaps speciously decided one was more to my liking than the other two. Inquired further.

Meanwhile, since pricing hadn’t yet been discussed, I channelled my inner math nerd and set up a spreadsheet that sensitized the most important variable: the amount left in the barrel after 25 years of thirsty angels taking their share, which is to say loss by evaporation. In that amount of time, the whisky left could well be 50 per cent or less of the initial fill volume.

To make a long story not quite as long, I bought the cask. It was half full. The golden liquid inside measured 67-per-cent alcohol by volume. Being capable of adding my own water, I had the distillery bottle it at cask strength and awaited delivery.

Before it ever got here, covid was declared a pandemic. Whistler Blackcomb closed for the season. Countries around the world closed their borders. We began to “shelter in place” and “socially distance.”

A week later, a very curious truck driver pulled up in front of my duplex and unloaded a pallet containing 21 cases, protecting 126 bottles of whisky... and an empty barrel. He wondered if I needed another friend. Bad timing on his part. Good timing on my part.

Breweries and distilleries began to divert their production to hand sanitizer. It contained 65-per-cent alcohol. I wondered about the salutary effects of drinking whisky containing a higher percentage of alcohol. Internal sanitizer.

I also worried about sheltering in place with enough whisky to start my own bar. Decided the only safe course would be to be alcohol-free at least every other day. Discovered even that wasn’t enough. Thus became an outlier—one of those people who actually drank less during covid than before we were even aware covid was a word.

Of course, I spread the wealth among friends who were known to imbibe, passing most of the largesse around at club rates, which is to say cost. Most of them managed to avoid the virus. But I didn’t think the experiment would pass peer review.

Fast-forward to last week. Judging from the reaction, much of Canada was shocked to learn that everything we knew about the negative effects of drinking alcohol was wrong. There is no safe amount and what was being touted as ‘low-risk’ was a measly two drinks per week. Week! Must be a typo.

The study, by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) upended the old guidelines of 15 drinks per week. Well, heck, just look at their title. Biased much?

But for the rest of the week, you couldn’t read a newspaper or watch a news cast or dip your toe into social media—I didn’t but people have told me—without wondering whether you’d slid down a time warp back to pre-prohibition days. I half expected to see a resurrection of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, though to be fair, I wouldn’t be gauche enough to ascribe it any particular gender, so don’t get your knickers in a knot. It’s just a historical reference.

There has already been some backlash to the CCSA study. In an opinion piece in the Globe and Mail last Friday, Dan Malleck, a professor in Brock University’s department of Health Sciences, pointed out some sobering facts about the recommendations. Most notably—and certainly appealing to a math nerd—was the study’s focus on relative, as opposed to absolute, risk of developing various maladies.

As he pointed out, while the study cited a nearly 100-per-cent risk increase for larynx cancer, the baseline for that form of cancer is roughly 0.0197 per cent of Canadians. Less than two per 10,000. Double that and you still don’t have enough people for a hand of bridge.

So while devil drink still wreaks havoc among far too many people, most of whom will ignore these guidelines as they’ve ignored past ones, if you tend to lead a healthy lifestyle, exercise, don’t smoke, etc., you’re likely in more danger from stressing over the new guidelines than you are to enjoy that glass of wine with your dinner or wee dram in the evening.