Heartwood whisky can stop your heart.
The chemist and home distiller Sheila Narcoticwiz [not her real name] explained to me that alcohol is poisonous. The general practitioner and whisky connisseur Doctor Ron Sutherland refined my understanding by pointing out that alcohol does not, as I had written, "contain poison”, alcohol is poison. Full stop.
After 350 pages of praise for the substance, and all the descriptions of what goes into whisky, I was not permitted to publish what it is: an intoxicant—in common parlance a poison. The Cancer Council can say it, the World Health Organisation can say it, but I was not permitted to even quote them saying it.
No Tasmanian whisky distillery was, at the time of publication, a member of the industry association body DrinkWise, and none but one (McHenry) gave any warning on any of their packaging about the risks of excessive drinking; moreover, the industry denied that there was any practical problem, and on that basis refused to have any question of its social responsibility raised. I had wanted to raise the issue in the context of describing the world's most powerful whisky: Heartwood's Devils in the Detail.
Entitled "Lethal Weapon" or "Bad-bam whisky", the breakout box text did not please Heartwood's owner Tim Duckett. It was tweaked and re-checked and resubmitted. Duckett's own explanations and rebuttals were added, but Duckett could not be placated. He would rather, he wrote to me, that every reference to Heartwood whisky—his entire chapter if necessary—be removed rather than have this breakout box published. We suggested what if it were moved elsewhere? No, nowhere. Not anywhere. He warned the publisher that any deleterious statement about a commercial product was actionable.
Ultimately, the chapter stayed but the breakout box was redacted by the publisher. Three large pull quotes filled the gap.
The redacted breakout box text
Whisky must, by law, be potable. That is, safe to drink, but alcohol is also a potent toxicant (hence intoxication). Being simultaneously potable and poisonous appears contradictory, and no one would drink alcohol unless its effects also included the release of endorphins that produce feelings of joy, pleasure and euphoria. But alcohol’s intoxicating effects also include reducing your core temperature, suppressing your gag reflex and disrhythmatising your breathing. Drinkers can suffer hyperthermia, choke and be rendered unconscious. It is all in the dose. A high enough dose can stop your heart. If you drink too much too fast death is inevitable.
How much is too fast? Most people can break down very small amounts of alcohol with few significant effects but alcohol’s toxicity in you, personally, depends on your race, age, sex, weight, previous experience and individuality. Toxicity can be approximated from the “standard drinks” statement. A single shot (by law 30ml of 40 per cent strength alcohol) is one standard drink/dose. Four doses in one hour would be mildly toxic, but pleasurable. Eight units in the same period would induce immediate dis-inhibition and significant alcoholic poisoning, but not until later. Twelve shots would comatose many people. Sixteen shots could be fatal. Pleasure and peril: what happens to you is all in the dose. Sixteen shots in an hour is a massive dose, but what if you drink by the more liberal pour; instead of a single, a double shot? A nobbler of around 60 ml. Half the number of serves would contain the same amount of peril. That’s eight shots. What if your whisky was almost twice the standard 40 per cent strength? The catastrophic dose would be halved again. Just four slugs.
The strongest whisky has the highest toxicity and so acute intoxication (alcohol poisoning) is an issue for all cask strength whisky-drinkers. Tasmania has many cask-strength whiskies, but by being 73.5 per cent alcohol Heartwood’s Devils in the Detail is the strongest double-distilled whisky in the world. Its strength demonstrates Heartwood’s remarkable ageing achievement and it has won much praise from whisky aficionados, but given its extreme strength, surely it would be more socially responsible—and might even be prudent—for cask strength whisky makers to add a consumer warning to their labels? On the contrary, Heartwood promotes the alcoholic content of its cask strength whiskies, advertising them as “More bam per dram...more throttle per bottle.”
The advertisement raises the issue of compliance with industry advertising standards. Does it breach the Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code by promoting the high strength of an alcoholic beverage? Duckett argues that “It's up to the individual how much is consumed, but those who consume Heartwood are not guzzlers” and the promotions were “just a bit of fun”. The slogan was removed in 2017.
The Devils in the Detail 500-ml bottle contains enough alcohol—if drunk full throttle—to kill two people. Bam, bam!
To drink Heartwood responsibly, fill the smaller fifteen-milliliter cup of a double jigger to deliver one standard “dose”. One half a nip a night: all good.
One of my drafts contained a suicide note to the effect that if I suffered some awfully painful and incurable disease a suicidal solution might lie in a bottle of Heartwood. I was not the first to have thought that. The American doctor Atul Gawande, I recently read, has written to the effect that instead of massive and futile intervention through chemotherapy, people may, instead, take a bottle or two of whisky into the countryside and gently await death.