Whiskey or Whisky? A Short History of Where Whisk(e)y got its Name and Why the Discrepancy in Spelling
Whether you’re from Ireland, Scotland, the United States, or anywhere really…If you’re a sensible drinker you should be able to agree that whiskey is wonderful. Now if only we could all agree on how to actually spell the stuff. Of all the major whiskey producing regions in the world, about half write it out without the ‘e’. Why is that? And why does it matter?
Well, let’s take a look back at from where the word originates. ‘Whiskey’ is a derivation of the Gaelic term for ‘water of life’: Uisce beatha. In fact, we see that same phrase pop up in myriad sorts of spirits from various parts of the world. In France, they refer to any brandy straight from the still as ‘eau de vie’. In Scandinavian countries they enjoy aquavit, a clear liquor named after the Latin phrase, conveying that same concept, lively water.
As for our Gaelic interpretation, parts of both Ireland and Scotland adopted the term, but spelling and pronunciation in the language slightly shifts as you traverse the North Channel of the Irish Sea. And so by the 19th Century, each country had developed their own way of translating the phrase into the English derivation we know today. It was a distinction promoted proudly by whiskeymakers of the Emerald Isle; at that time, any whisky coming out of Scotland was of much lower quality. Seeing it spelled as whiskey meant it was of Irish provenance and an established reputation preceded its uncorking.
Many of the earliest settlers of the American colonies hailed from Scotland. And so as American whiskey evolved into its own style—throughout the first few decades of the nascent nation—it was customary to see it labeled (and written about) without the ‘e’. That tradition changed after a massive wave of Irish immigration, beginning in the mid-1800s and extending through the early parts of the 20th Century. By the time Prohibition rolled around in 1920, bootleggers were dealing almost exclusively in the “whiskey” trade. It’s a tradition that holds true to present day; with the notable exception of Maker’s Mark ‘Kentucky Straight Whisky’ and George Dickel ‘Tennessee Whisky’, virtually all American producers label their product as whiskey.
Interestingly though, according to America’s liquor labeling laws (overseen by the federally-run Alcohol and Tobacco Tax And Trade Bureau) whiskey is actually recognized as whisky. At any rate, there’s no debate amongst their neighbors to the north. Canada, like Scotland, is unanimous in their usage of the sans ‘e’ variation. The practice holds true for all of the so-called ‘World Whisky’ regions that have cropped up from Japan to Australia to India.
As a general rule of thumb remember that if the country has an ‘e’ in its name, so, too, does its whiskey. And if you’re tired of writing it out in different ways over and over, always keep things plural—‘whiskies’ can technically satisfy both camps. Besides, whiskies are never as fun when they’re just one, anyhow.