It’s not a typo: there really are two ways to spell whiskey. And while the substantive difference between the two is even smaller than that missing “e,” it’s good to know when to use which spelling, if only to keep on the right side of the purists.
Here’s the lowdown. Irish and American distillers make whiskey. Distillers pretty much everywhere else in the world make whisky.
A Trick to Remember This
The old trick for remembering the split used to be that if the country had an “e” in its name, like Ireland and the United States, it used the spelling with the “e.” If the country didn’t have an “e” in its name, like Scotland, Canada, and Japan, it used the whisky spelling. But with so many more countries now making whisky, that rule is no longer particularly useful. England and France, for instance, make whisky.
How did this orthographical schism come about? Most drinks historians trace the origins of the word “whiskey” to an anglicization of the Gaelic word usquebaugh, translated as “water of life.” (The French term eau de vie and Latin aquavitae have the same translation).
Scottish and Irish Gaelic are slightly different, which may have given rise to different English spellings. Or, perhaps the spelling difference originated as a way for Irish producers to differentiate their whiskey from Scottish whisky in the 1800s, a time when Irish distillers were dominating the export market and Scottish producers were making poor quality booze.
Why do American producers use the Irish spelling? Some suggest it’s because so many Irish immigrants came to the United States and began making whiskey, importing their preferred nomenclature along with their distilling know-how. Others say it’s because American producers wanted to piggyback on the popularity of Irish whiskey in the 1800s.
Today, the difference is primarily academic, although it’s one that still inspires strong feelings. (Woe betide the unsuspecting American who haplessly refers to Scotch Whiskey!) Yet whiskey and whisky aren’t different beverages. They’re both made from fermented and distilled grain and aged in wooden barrels.
If you had to generalize, whisky is perhaps more likely to be made from malted barley, although much of Scotch whisky is actually grain whisky made from wheat and/or corn, Japanese whisky can be made from a variety of different grains, and many of our favorite Irish whiskeys are made entirely from malt.
That means the difference in spelling won’t necessarily tell you anything about the way the stuff will taste. It really only tells you about the country of origin—and even then, it’s not a 100% guarantee. Balcones Distillery in Texas, for instance, uses the “whisky” spelling as an homage to the Scottish distillers who inspired them. Maker’s Mark, which makes textbook American bourbon, also chooses the “whisky” spelling as an homage to the founders’ Scottish heritage.
Discover Both. On Autopilot
Ready to explore the difference for yourself? Mash & Grape has tons of Scotch whisky, Japanese whisky, Canadian whisky, and other world whiskies to choose from, as well as loads of American bourbon and rye whiskey and Irish whiskeys. Shop online for releases that strike your fancy, or join one of our whiskey memberships to get a hand-selected bottle of something delicious shipped to your door every month.
P.S. See what we did there? Even the plurals are different–more than one whiskey is whiskeys, and more than one whisky is whiskies. It’s enough to send anybody searching for a stiff drink.