FOR centuries whisky has been known to Scots as the water of life and now scientists have discovered that, when taken in moderation, it really does have health benefits.

Researchers at Shizuoka University in Japan believe that one measure of Scotch a day may help prevent the onset of gout and arthritis.

The secret, they say, is in the maturing process. Whisky is left to age in oak sherry barrels which produces a medicinal effect. The spirit combines with ingredients in the wood during its storage and generates ellagic acid, a chemical known to have health benefits.

The scientists studied whisky over a period of time, taking samples from casks both new and up to 15 years old. They found two chemicals present, 1-formylpurogallol and ellagic acid, both of which are believed to inhibit the generation of the compounds responsible for arthritis and gout.

As a result, the researchers believe that whisky, taken in sensible quantities of no more than one tot a day, may help prevent and cure gout and other arthritic conditions.

The breakthrough was revealed in a paper to the 49th Annual General Assembly and Scientific Meeting of Japan's College of Rheumatology.

Last month a medical conference in Glasgow was told that whisky, taken in moderation, could help protect against cancer.

"There has been much in the news about the health benefits of antioxidants in red wine. By contrast, very little has been said about malt whisky, " Jim Swan, a consultant to the drinks industry, told the EuroMedLab 2005 conference.

"Research has shown that there are even greater health benefits to people who drink single malt whiskies."

Dr Swan explained that single malts, the more exclusive and expensive whiskies, had more ellagic acid than red wine. He described the chemical as a "free radical scavenger" which consumed potentially cancerous cells.

"The free radicals can break down the DNA structure of our existing cells, which then leads to the risk of the body making replacement rogue cancer cells.

So, whether you indulge in the odd tipple, or are a serious connoisseur, whisky can protect you from cancer and science proves it, " he said.

Commenting on the latest findings from Japan yesterday, Campbell Evans of the Scottish Whisky Association said: "I don't think this is any great surprise to whisky drinkers - it was named by the Gaels as the water of life, and well deserves its name."