One of the most confusing things about whisky, a subject that is not short of confusing things, is that there’s more than one way of spelling the word ‘whisky’. Some spell it whisky, whereas others spell it whiskey. Then there is the tiny minority who insist on spelling it ‘whiski’, though you can ignore this last group. As far as we are concerned, it’s all about the great whisky vs whiskey debate. Just to be clear, both are pronounced in the same way so this problem never comes up when ordering a whisky, or indeed a whiskey, in a bar.
Let’s start with the rules of modern usage and then delve into the thorny issue of why this schism happened in the first place.
What’s the difference between whisky and whiskey
This is the most common usage in Ireland and America, so when referring to American whiskey or Irish whiskey, most people use the word ‘whiskey’ not ‘whisky’, which is how we do things here at Master of Malt.
But just to complicate things there are producers in both countries who prefer their whisky without an ‘e’ in it, such as Waterford in Ireland and Maker’s Mark, George Dickel, Old Forester, and Balcones in the US. This might be because they want to stand apart from the country’s category or just because they have always spelt it like that.
Pretty much everyone else is firmly in the whisky rather than whiskey camp such as Scotland, Japan (except Fuji Gotemba which uses the whiskey spelling), Canada, and all those exciting new world whisky countries that we keep hearing so much about. Though if you can think of any exceptions, let me know. For Scotch whisky and Canadian whisky, producers from those countries legally have to spell it without the ‘e’.
The history of whisky vs whiskey
In the past things were (even) less clear cut. You can find adverts and bottles of Scotch whisky where the ‘e’ is present and conversely you can find old Irish and American materials where whisky is spelt in the Scottish manner. The famous 1908 Royal Commission on Whiskey (sic) and Other Potable Spirit, which came down on the side of the whisky blenders against those who thought that the only true Scotch whisky was malt whisky, spells it ‘whiskey.’ Until relatively recently, spellings of many words were less stable and either would do. Nobody cared!
The Irish began to switch to using mainly whiskey in the 19th century, probably to differentiate themselves against their rivals on the other side of the Irish sea though not everyone got the memo. There was controversy over the recent Banshees of Inisherin film which featured a sign for ‘Irish whisky’ in a bar. This was thought to be a mistake by the film’s producers though in fact both spellings were in use until surprisingly recently. In the 1960s you could buy Paddy Irish Whisky, though it is now spelt without the ‘e’. Today, there’s no legal obligation to spell it either way in Ireland.
Meanwhile in the US, nobody is quite sure why they went down the ‘e’ route, though it might well be because of the large cultural impact of Irish immigration to the US. Though oddly, current documents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms which regulate the industry use the spelling ‘whisky’ – so, as in Ireland, you can legally spell it either way. Meanwhile the Canadians went Scottish, and again this might be because of the large Scottish immigrant population.
Let’s call the whole thing off!
However you spell it, it’s still pronounced whisky or whiskey. Which is fine for drinkers but extremely annoying for writers who have to keep saying whisky or whiskey depending on which country they are talking about or using the inelegant terms like whisk(e)y. What we really need is a Royal Commission on the spelling of the word whisky so it can be decided once and for all. Or maybe we could just relax and use either like in the good old days.
David Wondrich, drinks writer and historian, commented: “The whole ‘e’ business is a 20th century canard; a meaningless gotcha.” He went on to say: “When compiling the Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails we decided to just pick one spelling and use it throughout. This was much easier and changed the meaning of precisely nothing. (We went with ‘whisky.’)” So there you have it, next time someone pulls you up for using whiskey instead of whisky or vice versa, point them in Dave’s direction.