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Whiskey or Whisky? How Do You Spell It?

"Whiskey is liquid sunshine" - George Bernard Shaw


For many years, the right terminology has been a subject of arguments between scholars and connoisseurs. In Scotland they call it “whisky” but the Irish spell it “whiskey”. The extra ‘e’ in the spelling probably comes from the translations of the word from the Scottish and Irish Gaelic forms. Since the Irish immigrants took the spirit to the United States, American whiskies are also spelt with the extra ‘e’.

The word whisky is also used in Canada, Japan, Scotland, and Wales where it’s plural is whiskies. In Ireland and the USA, whiskey is used instead, with the plural being spelled as whiskeys. This usage is not consistent however since many prominent American brands, like George Dickel, Maker’s Mark, and Old Forester, all of which are produced in different distilleries, use the spelling ‘whisky’ on their labels. The U.S. legal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits document also allows the use of the ‘whisky’ spelling.


So, really... How Do You Spell It?



On the subject of different spellings, whisky or whiskey, some people tend to believe that despite the arguments on the two spellings, the difference is merely a matter of local language convention and background or personal preference of the writer. That’s not exactly true. Some whisk[e]y types are always spelled the same, depending n the style. You should know the differences and why, to be properly informed.

It’s said that the difference in spellings came from a few different reasons. Borrowed from Irish Gaelic word “uisce beatha”, (meaning whiskey), the Irish pronounced it Whisk – “ey”, putting stress on the last syllable. While people from Scotland used the Scottish Gaelic “uisge beatha”, (pronounced Whisk –“y”). As you can see, the stress on the last two syllables are different, thus most likely starting the different spellings.

Additionally, it was said that the Irish didn’t want their Irish Whiskey ever being confused with Scotland’s Whisky. The ‘e’ was added as a differentiator. As you should hopefully know if you’re interested in reading this, there is a big difference in flavors between Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky. Scotch whisky is known for it’s peat smoke that’s common with many of their styles of whisky. While, the Irish didn’t really use peat to make their whiskey.

When the United States was being founded & in the 1800’s, originally the two terms for whiskey & whisky were used interchangeably. But ingredients were different when making whiskey here in the United States versus the old world. (Think corn). So it should be different than Scotch whisky.

And lastly, with the arrival of lots of Irish immigrants into the United States at this time caused their spelling of the spirit to take hold, over other spellings.

But in spite of all debates on its spelling, there is a general agreement that once a name has been printed on the label, the spelling should not be altered. Globally, “Scotch” is the recognized term for “Scotch whisky”, though in Scotland itself, the spirit is called simply “whisky”.

Many fans of whisky or whiskey would be careful of diluting or contaminating their drinks with water; but they tend to overlook the fact that water is used in the process of distilling whisky or whiskey. Moreover, the words whisky and water share a common Indo-European root which appears in several guises, as wed, wod or ud.

While water is a native English word from prehistoric common Germanic “water” to the Indo-European suffixed form “wodor”, whiskey is a shortened form of usquebaugh, which the English borrowed from Irish Gaelic word uisce beatha and Scottish Gaelic uisge beatha. This compound descends from Old Irish uisce, “water,” and bethad, “of life,” and the literal meaning is “water of life.”

In another drink aquavit, the meaning is again literally the same in Latin from two words; aqua meaning water and vitae meaning life. Another Latin term used in medieval times for distilled alcohol was aqua fortis which means “strong water”.

So as a general rule, you can be safe to spell whisk[e]y in the following ways:

If you are referring to the alcohol from Scotland, Japan & India, spell it WHISKY.

If you are referring to Whiskey from America or Ireland, spell it WHISKEY. Bourbon is also referred to as WHISKEY, (most often). But there are some distilleries that spell it without the ‘e’.

If you are referring to Whiskey from Canada, most distilleries spell it WHISKY; however, there are a handful of distilleries that choose to use WHISKEY.

No matter how you spell it, whisky or whiskey, Enjoy it. Just know that the ‘e’ in the spelling most often does make a difference. Scotch & Japanese style whiskies tend to be smokier. American & Irish whiskeys tend to not have that smoke and can often be much lighter in body. But that’s not always the case! There’s nothing ever absolute in this world. 


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