There is an old wives’ legend that drinking whisky can help you overcome a common cold. Many different concoctions are suggested, and there have been cases when people will drink themselves silly while suffering from a cold or a fever, or both.

Let’s see where the truth lies.

Does Whisky Itself Help with Colds?

The concept of whisky being good for a cold probably came from farmer’s or grandfather’s remedies that have been passed down anecdotally through the ages. Let’s understand the basic premise – what effect does whisky have on a cold? The answer … not much! Whisky does provide temporary relief since it dilates the blood capillaries of the body and therefore eases the pressure that your mucus membranes are likely suffering from during a heavy cold and congestion. So, if your sinuses feel sore, whisky will help … a bit. That’s about it.

The effect is only temporary and should be enjoyed in moderation. Drinking five or six whiskies instead of one is likely to make your condition much worse. You are already sick, and colds dehydrate you. If the alcohol adds to that dehydration manifold, you are likely going to be a very unhappy camper over the night and next day. Whisky is also a diuretic, which is going to add to the discomfort at night and further dehydrate you.

The one reason that whisky may be touted as a cure for the common cold is for its ability to provide some relief to a sore throat. This follows from whisky being able to soothe aching muscles. Since a cold is often accompanied by a sore throat, the myth of whisky as a cure grows.

The Answer May Lie with What You Put the Whisky In

One of the reasons that the legend of whisky as a cure for cold has persisted – besides the fact that it relieves throat muscles when you have a bad cough – is that the alcohol is rarely ingested neat if you are drinking it as a cure. The typical remedies usually involve putting whisky in hot tea, boiling water, with lemon and/or honey. Each of these ingredients has its own effect on colds and sore throats.

The classic drink of a toddy is discussed under the Whisky and Honey below. Other varieties are sprinkled throughout the next few sections.

Here’s the scoop, though. While honey and lemon can help ease a scratchy throat (honey will coat the throat and both of them can help fight any infections you have), the anti-microbial qualities of these two “remedies” cannot help to cure a common cold. A cold is caused by a virus, so an antibiotic is useless.

The reason people keep thinking that a cure is possible with a drink like a toddy is simple – they equate easing of the symptoms (see below) and a good night’s sleep, which actually helps your body heal naturally – with an actual “cure” brought about by the toddy.

Other spices, such as clove, nutmeg and cinnamon, can be added to the various whisky based concoctions. Each of them possesses certain therapeutic properties, which won’t really cure anything, but will provide relief.

Does Whisky in Tea Help with Colds?

Here’s one simple rule to remember – caffeine, a diuretic, cannot possibly help relieve your cold in the long run. If you pee more, you get dehydrated, a big no-no when you’re sick.

The answer may be something like herbal tea, such as mint, peppermint, ginger, green or chamomile tea. They have certain beneficial effects, including hydration and soothing of the throat and sinuses. They also possess antibacterial properties, but it’s unsure how this would actually help you escape a common cold which is caused by viruses.

What about adding whisky? Try a Whisky Chai – it’s made with black tea, milk and bourbon (or rye) whisky, along with a rich mixture of spices (such as peppercorn, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon and cardamom) ground together and mixed into the hot tea and whisky.

You have pretty much covered every base with this chai. Just remember, expect some relief but this cannot possibly be a cure.

Can You Use Water?

You can definitely use water – in fact, if you are planning to drink whisky while you have a cold, you MUST drink water. Alcohol dehydrates you. Any temporary relief you feel from dilation of your membranes and easing sore throat muscles will soon be taken over by the effects of dehydration – which will become very uncomfortable when you have a cold. So, adding water to hydrate is a must. In fact (see next section) you should add hot water.

Does Hot Whisky Help with Colds?

You can’t really heat up whisky, it will start to evaporate after a while! So hot whisky equates to adding hot water to a drink. Hot water is also known to relieve nasal congestion, prevent dehydration and help soothe the inflamed membranes inside your nose (sinuses) and throat. But again, it is not a cure for the cold – just temporary relief. A hot toddy (described below) may do the best job to ease congestions and soreness temporarily and help you fall asleep.

Hot Tea with Lemon and Cloves

Does Whisky and Honey Help at All?

The classic Hot Toddy combines whisky, honey, lemon and boiling hot water. Honey and lemon are proven remedies for scratchy throats, though what effect they each have on a cold is debatable. Hot water, as we saw above, also helps. Here’s the recipe for a hot toddy:

  • Pour 35ml whisky into boiling water
  • Add 2-3 tablespoons of honey
  • Add clove and lemon
  • Stir with a cinnamon stick
  • Let the drink steep for 5 minutes – you will be able to smell the flavor spread
  • Add a sprinkle of nutmeg on top

Drink the toddy as hot as you can without scalding your throat. By the time you finish, the combined effect of the ingredients should make you feel a little better. Plus, the whisky will likely make you a bit sleepy and the congestion should abate so you can breathe a little better. Fall asleep if you can at this stage – a good night’s sleep will do more to refresh you than most remedies.

Do NOT slam hot toddies one after the other. As discussed before, being drunk while sick is going to have significant adverse consequences later.

The Verdict

As the discussion above shows, the best impact that a whisky based “remedy” can deliver to you is temporary relief, hopefully some abatement of coughing and throat irritation, and most importantly – a good night’s sleep because you are groggy from both the cold and the toddy type of drink. Take one, then, and get some rest. That is more likely to get you back on your feet faster than grandpa’s remedies, however sexy it may seem.