Culture

Are the new alcohol guidelines too extreme? This distillery owner—and former doctor—breaks it down.

Lucky Bastard co-owner Michael Goldney has been putting warning labels on his bottles for years, but says the new guidelines may have gone too far
Courtney Shea
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Michael Goldney called his distillery Lucky Bastard because he launched it on the back of an unexpected windfall. Before that, the Saskatoon native worked as a family doctor, which gives him a unique perspective on Canada’s new alcohol consumption guideline. Down from two drinks a day to two drinks a week (and emphasizing the link between even moderate drinking and cancer risk), the Health Canada–endorsed recommendations have many in the alcohol industry worried about the bottom line. 

Goldney’s company is a bit of an outlier—Lucky Bastard products have included safe drinking guideline labels since 2017. “We want to give our consumers the best information possible,” he says. Here, he explains why he’s planning to update his labels—with or without a mandate—and why the message of “drink responsibly” is not enough. 

You are a former family doctor who now runs a distillery. How did that happen?

I wasn’t one of those young kids who knew they wanted to be a doctor. I fell in love with science and biology at university. In 2006, I was just a couple of years out of residency, working as a locum in rural Saskatchewan, which means I would relieve doctors so they could attend conferences or go on vacation. I enjoyed the work and had no notion of doing anything else. Then, one day after work, I went into the drugstore to buy a magazine and I bought a lottery ticket. The next day, I was doing rounds and I found out I had won the jackpot: $14.6 million! For a while I thought I wanted to stay in medicine, but it got to the point where I wasn’t enjoying it anymore, and because of my windfall, I had options. My wife and I were having drinks with a friend one night. He had just read an article about how micro-distilleries were popping up all over the states and we said, We’re in.  

Did you know anything about the booze biz before getting into it?

I mean, I did one of those make-your-own beer kits in university. And I liked that there was some science involved in distilling, so I wasn’t completely wasting my degree. Because of my newfound wealth, my wife and I had done some travelling and discovered cocktail culture—Manhattans in New York, and then we had these amazing Ramos gin fizzes in… I don’t even remember where.

You must have had a few.

Ha! Right. None of this had reached Saskatchewan at the time, but we thought it was coming, so the timing was good. We launched in 2017 and we called the company Lucky Bastard for obvious reasons. From the start, selling a toxin was something I had to reconcile with my background. As a doctor, I saw plenty of evidence of the harms caused by alcohol: the obvious drunken stuff, like someone coming to the emergency room with facial lacerations after trying to leapfrog parking meters, or esophageal bleeding caused by alcoholic liver cirrhosis.  

As a doctor, what are your thoughts on the new recommendations?

Both as a physician and as a distiller, I rather liked the old guidelines: two drinks a day for women and three for men. That doesn’t seem like problem drinking, but at the same time, if everyone drank that much, our sales would go up. The new guidelines strike me as being a bit extreme, particularly in the way the information is being reported—a 90-page report being boiled down to the most alarmist headlines.  

For example? 

The CCSA report highlights the link between alcohol and many different types of cancer, but the fact that alcohol is a carcinogen is not new. I honestly thought that’s something most people were aware of, but now it’s like this big bad boogeyman. I’m not saying cancer isn’t extremely serious, but if we live long enough we’re all going to die of heart disease or cancer. I think we need context to really understand what we’re looking at, starting with the distinction between absolute risk and relative risk. So maybe I’m 30 per cent more likely to contract a certain throat cancer, but that doesn’t mean I have a 30 per cent chance of getting throat cancer, which is how I think some people are processing the information. In most cases we are still talking about an extremely small number, which consumers should understand and then make their own decisions. 

So then where do you stand on the CCSA’s call for mandatory labelling?

We actually started putting labels on our products in 2017 after I attended a working group spearheaded by the Saskatchewan Prevention Institute called “Let’s Talk Alcohol,” and they made a good case for why it’s important to promote specific guidelines. Of course those were the 2011 guidelines, which also included potential cardiovascular benefits of moderate consumption. I certainly prefer a drink to 30 minutes of cardio. 

This is the warning label currently placed on Lucky Bastard bottles. Goldney plans to update the labels.

Will you update your labels with the new guidelines? 

We will. Our goal is to give our customers the best information possible, and right now I guess that’s the information from the CCSA. I’ve been following some of the criticism. I gather that of the 6,000 studies examined, only 16 of them were used for modelling. That definitely gives me pause, but at the same time I’m not about to dust off my statistical analysis textbook.

Some of your industry colleagues say “please enjoy responsibly” labels should be enough. You don’t agree?

No, I don’t really buy that. What does responsible drinking look like? Every person has a different definition and often it just means that you know someone who drinks more than you do. At the same time, I am extremely sympathetic to the concerns of my industry. Particularly to those who have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders—we’re a very small, privately owned producer, so we can look at it in terms of our ethics. 

You’re still a business, though. If everyone goes from two drinks a day to two a week, that’s a pretty massive hit. 

It is, but I really don’t think that’s going to happen. If we look at, for example, what happened in California following the mandatory calorie labelling on fast food—it’s not like that had a significant impact on obesity rates. Or just look at the way people drive on the highway. You may be safer going at a slower speed, but that doesn’t stop a lot of us from driving faster. 

Critics are comparing the CCSA to a modern-day temperance society with an anti-alcohol agenda. What do you think?

I think of course that is their agenda, but I’m not saying that in a critical way. It’s not the Centre for Substance Abuse and Addiction’s job to promote the positive aspects of drinking alcohol— the alcohol industry already does a very good job of that. And of course there are positive aspects. Alcohol is a social lubricant, we are social beings, and our mental health can be improved by social interactions. 

I’ve asked you about how you feel as a business owner and a former doctor. What about as a guy who likes to unwind with a cocktail? Will the new guidelines influence your personal consumption?

No, they won’t. I love to have a couple of whiskeys and a cigar every now and then, and that’s not going to change.