The Federal Government is Coming for your Moderate Bourbon Habit

Two drinks a day has always been considered healthy - but that may be about to change.

Since 1995, both hard science (and common sense) have led to the government’s recommendation that bourbon lovers can safely enjoy two nightly pours, without going over the top of course. Now, just one study is leading the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Panel to change course in this year’s report.

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines are reviewed every five years, advising Americans on everything from added sugars to early childhood nutrition and published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Their definition of moderate drinking has thus far been up to two drinks a day for men, and up to one drink a day for women.

In the 2020 report, however, the longstanding recommendations when it comes to moderate drinking are being cut in half for men, recommending that bourbon lovers have just one drink per day. Understandably, wine and spirits groups around the country were concerned with not only the advice itself, but more interestingly, with the process by which the committee arrived at it.

“A small group of advisors is proposing the government slash that definition in half for men, with a shocking lack of scientific support,” read a statement issued by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS). “That would mean any adult man enjoying two drinks at dinner, during a football game, or at a distillery would suddenly be redefined as not drinking in moderation. The advisory group’s 835-page report admits that ‘only one study examined differences among men comparing one vs. two drinks’.

“This proposal deviates significantly from previous U.S. dietary guidance and is not supported by the preponderance of the scientific evidence, which shows that moderate drinking at current DGA levels is associated with a reduced risk of all-cause mortality. We are urging a comprehensive review of the process as well as the scientific basis for making such an extreme change to this well-established guidance. It is in the best interest of American adults to have dietary guidance on alcohol consumption that is firmly grounded in evidence-based science.”

While some of this may seem complicated, we reached out to Dr. Craig McClain, Professor of Medicine and Pharmacology at the University of Louisville, to put it all in context for both Kentuckians and whiskey drinkers around the country.

“There were two big things done with regards to this year’s report,” explains Dr. McClain. “First, they took the definition of moderate drinking in males from two drinks to one, and second, they very much de-emphasized any safe or healthy drinking.”

One study he notes from The Lancet compiles data on alcohol intake and health from 195 countries around the world, but he’s quick to tell us that you can’t apply data from all those countries to influence public policy here. “In some of these underdeveloped countries, you see that low alcohol intake can raise the risk of tuberculosis, so they advise against it. However, that’s not a morbidity and mortality concern in the U.S. Here, low to moderate amounts may actually be beneficial to your cardiovascular risk. You can’t interpret data from one country to another when those countries populations are so different.”

“You also need to look at the issue of confounding variables, and Kentucky is a great example. We’ve had an increase in liver cancer in Kentucky, and we have fairly heavy drinking. But we also have obesity. So unless you take into account obesity, you’ll inappropriately ascribe cancer risk to alcohol. A lot of the cancer that alcohol is associated with can actually be better ascribed to obesity.”

Other concerns were voiced in a bipartisan letter from Congressmen across the country, including Kentucky’s own Bourbon Caucus Co-Chairs John Yarmuth (D) and Andy Barr (R), that has been sent to HHS Secretary Alex Azar and USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue.

“We are writing with concern regarding the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) process and the Committee’s recommendation to dramatically alter long-standing U.S. dietary guidelines on moderate alcohol consumption, without consideration for the preponderance of scientific evidence,” reads the letter. “We request information from your Agencies about how this conclusion was reached, considering the lack of scientific evidence to justify any change in current moderate drinking recommendations.

“We appreciate that your Agencies said from the beginning of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines process that it would be based on the most rigorous standards for transparency and science. Therefore, we are troubled that on June 17 the Committee presented a brand-new recommendation that would halve the recommended maximum alcohol intake guideline for men, reducing it to just one drink per day.

“The Committee’s published Nutrition Evidence Systematic Review (NESR) protocol included sixty research studies on the relationship between alcohol and all-cause mortality, the vast majority of which the Committee itself says show benefits of moderate drinking on longevity or show no negative relationship between moderate drinking and longevity.”

Its these 60 studies, all dating from the last 10 years, that critics say form the preponderance, or prevalent majority, of scientific evidence showing that two drinks per day is perfectly safe for the vast majority of American men. While the reasons for the committees change may be unclear, Dr. McClain cautions on letting politicians make health decisions for the country.

“Sometimes politics plays into scientific articles that come out, which is inappropriate. So I would say don’t change recommendations unless there’s strong science – and I don’t think there is a strong scientific basis to change 2020 from previous ones,” he states.

A hearing on the report is scheduled for Tuesday, August 11th, and public comments are being taken on the report until Thursday, August 13th. If you’d like call on your representatives take another look at 25 years of science, click here.

Caroline Paulus
Caroline Paulus is the Senior Editor for The Bourbon Review. She lives and writes in Lexington, Kentucky. Follow her on Instagram @misswhiskeyhistorian to keep up with her latest in bourbon news - and a few old finds, too.