Whisky or Whiskey? Please Explain!

An age-old argument between whiskey lovers is whether they’re beloved drink is spelt whisky or whiskey. Spoiler alert: they’re both right.

So what’s the difference between the two forms of spelling? Or is the only difference the letter “e”?

Some of the theories behind why it’s spelt differently

  • The original word for whisky, uisge beatha (translated as water of life), was translated differently by the Irish and the Scottish.
  • Each manufacturer had a personal preference towards one way of spelling.
  • Typesetters didn’t quite get it right.

The real answer (fast option)

The reason that whisky and whiskey are spelled differently is that Irish whisky distillers added an “e” to differentiate their higher quality product from the blended Scottish alternative.

Whisky or whiskey
The difference between whisky and whiskey is fairly minor.

A longer answer…

From the conception of whiskey making through to the late 1800’s the generally accepted spelling throughout the world was “whisky”. This included the major distillers based in Ireland, Scotland and the U.S. The world was in harmony.

Then the 1860 Spirits Act was passed by the Gladstone Government and everything changed.

Although a lengthy piece of legislation, the most significant change was that distilleries could blend single malts with grain whisky. This gave Scottish producers the ability to compete against their Irish competitors by making a similar product, at a much cheaper price. Through the combination of price and innovative packaging, Scottish distilleries started to claim and increased share of the whisky market.

A loss of market share was not appreciated by Irish distilleries.

To combat declining sales, the major Irish whisky manufacturers joined forces and started a campaign against the use of blends. Their main claim was that because the ingredients strayed from original recipes, it should not be called whisky. They failed in their efforts.

The next option the big Irish distilleries took was to rename their product “whiskey”. This was all about brand positioning. They wanted to differentiate their products from the blends. Products that used an “e” were marketed as higher quality spirits. The whole situation was quite confusing though because many Irish distilleries did not choose to adopt the new spelling. Some didn’t change the name for 50 years whist others still use the original spelling today.

So why is it spelt whiskey in the U.S.?

This is quite simple. Irish whiskey was perceived to be the highest quality product on the market. Distilleries in America were very keen to associate their brands with the Irish product – adding the “e” was a good way to position their whiskey at the top end of the market and command higher sales per bottle.

Whiskey vs whisky – a comparison

There are a number of differences in how the two spirits are produced. Before we look at these in details, keep in mind these are not definite rules. There are some exceptions that don’t fit here.

1. Type of still

Irish and U.S. stills generally use short and fat pot stills that are large in size. The end result is a smoother flavored drop. Scottish producers use many different types of still which results in a diverse range of flavors.

2 The drying process

The U.S. and Ireland often use wood to dry the malted barley which provides a lighter flavor without the stronger smoky undertones. On the other hand, the Scots use peat results in a much more smoky, full flavored whisky.

3 Grain usage

Scotch whisky often uses malted barley; Irish whiskey also uses this ingredient, but also combines additional grains like wheat, barley or corn. American whiskey also uses a combination of grains. However, they are very different from both Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky. This is a contributing factor to American whiskey being such a unique flavor when compared to its peers.

Here’s a breakdown of spelling by major whiskey producing countries. Here’s a helpful was to remember how it’s spelt in each country: if the country has an “e” in its spelling, it spells the word whiskey with an “e” also. This isn’t 100% accurate but it’s a good guide, especially for all the big whiskey producing countries.

Country Spelling
Ireland Whiskey
Scotland Whisky
United States Whiskey
Canada Whisky
Japan Whisky
India Whisky

FAQ

Are there any regulatory requirements around how whisky and whiskey can be used?

There are no regulatory requirements to be able to sell whisky or whiskey, it is purely a marketing choice.

Concluding words

The different spelling of whisky and whiskey is the result of marketing strategy. Back in the 1800’s the extra “e” was added by the Irish to help differentiate their product from the cheaper made Scottish brands. So if you ever find yourself debating which spelling is correct: you can play the peacemaker and advise that both versions of the spelling are correct.

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