Oh, how I wish I did not have to write this article. It has been sitting empty in my drafts folder for months with only the headline. But the question how whisky is spelled properly just keeps resurfacing over and over again. Not that I have any hope to change that by writing this here anyway. But then at least I can say that I did my best to help get rid of this tedious issue.
Just the other day a person who I thought should know better insisted on Facebook that bourbon was something different than whisky because it was whiskey. My toenails begin to curl up whenever I read statements like that which is a very painful process.
There are two different spellings for our favourite drink, whisky and whiskey. Most countries use the “whisky” spelling, “whiskey” is only used on a broad basis in Ireland and in the USA. The origin of the e is unclear, but it can be assumed that Irish and American distillers began to use it to set themselves apart from the Scottish.
But while there are no “whiskey” renegades in the classic “whisky” countries of Scotland, Canada and Japan, things are not quite as uniform in the “whiskey” countries. There are many examples of Irish “whisky”, like the Paddy sign here above, and not all are ancient. The commitment to the “whiskey” spelling by all Irish distillers only begins in the mid 20th century.
In America things are even more convoluted. “Whiskey” surely is the most common spelling, but well-known brands like Maker’s Mark or George Dickel decided to use the “whisky” spelling. And what’s more, the official US regulations for distilled spirits use “whisky” throughout.
When you meet someone in person who asks you “What whisky do you prefer, Connemara or Ledaig? Maker’s Mark or Buffalo Trace?” the spelling is not an issue. But if you are anal retentive about the spelling, you will run into problems when this question is asked by email. Would you write “Connemara is my favourite whiskey and Maker’s Mark is my favourite whisky?”
People defending the importance of spelling sometimes even go as far as saying that whisky and whiskey are spelled differently because they are inherently different. But of course they are not. Connemara differs from Ledaig only in the distillery location, they are both peated double-distilled single malts. And Maker’s Mark is a prime example of a middle of the road bourbon – don’t try to the explain the different spelling with a different mashbill. But on the other hand Connemara is very different from Buffalo Trace.
The distinction between “whisky” and “whiskey” is a mattter of history and convention more than anything else. It should be regarded as what it is, a set of alternative spellings for the same thing, just like grey and gray, tire and tyre, liter and litre and so on. So next time you see anyone writing about “Irish whisky” or “Scotch whiskey”, just shrug your shoulders and move on. Because there is nothing to see there.