Post image for Whisky Myths Debunked #11 – Spelling Is Important

Whisky Myths Debunked #11 – Spelling Is Important

by Oliver Klimek on June 16, 2014

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.

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Rod Graham June 16, 2014 at 10:47 am

Good, clear article Oliver. But probably too sensible to gain much acceptance. Whisk(e)y thrives on myths and myth-making.

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Steffen Bräuner June 16, 2014 at 4:22 pm

Hi Oliver

I have a question for you

If they don’t use e150 and we can asses a natural untainted drink, what is your favourite w̶h̶i̶s̶k̶y̶c̶o̶l̶o̶r̶ ̶w̶h̶i̶s̶k̶e̶y̶c̶o̶l̶o̶u̶r̶ ̶w̶h̶i̶s̶k̶e̶y̶c̶o̶l̶o̶ur̶ whiskycolour?

Steffen

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Oliver Klimek June 16, 2014 at 5:32 pm

I don’t care about the colour at all. Honestly. It’s a hint to what happened at maturation, I don’t like the colours, I like the smell and taste.

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Mark Guyton June 16, 2014 at 8:35 pm

And the next time you see “surely” spelled “sureley”, you should just shrug your shoulders and move on. Because Oliver has told us spelling doesn’t matter. ;)

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Oliver Klimek June 16, 2014 at 8:38 pm

LOL. The spelling of surely does matter indeed. Corrected.

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Jeff June 16, 2014 at 10:09 pm

If the spelling of “surely” matters, then the spelling of “whisky/whiskey” surely matters. Typos happen and they’re not the end of the world, but to misspell the spirit you’re talking about, much less on any kind of a regular basis (and that’s not a specific accusation) or to say that the spelling doesn’t matter anyway, undercuts credibility. I simply can’t read anyone going on about whisk(e)y who can’t be bothered to spell it. It’s not a crime, but it is wrong and it’s just irritating.

“The distinction between “whisky” and “whiskey” is a matter of history and convention more than anything else” – true, but language is also a matter of history and convention, and it’s that convention which allows us to understand what is being said.

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Oliver Klimek June 16, 2014 at 10:21 pm

Sorry but I don’t get your point. There is no alternate spelling for “surely”, so why would you compare a typo with something that indeed does have two spellings? How would you go on if you had to put a bracket around Maker’s Mark and Buffalo Trace, or Connemara and Ledaig? Would you really use “whisk(e)y”? Is all Irish “whiskey” automatically disqualified for “whisky of the year” awards? Should “Whisky Advocate” stick to Scotch, Canadian, Japanese, Maker’s Mark and Dickel? What exactly is the right spelling for the entirety of US distilled spirits from a grain mash that do not qualify as vodka?

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Jeff June 16, 2014 at 10:50 pm

By convention, the word does not have two spellings in a single context. If the world decided, long ago, that there was only one proper spelling for “whisk(e)y” in general (take your pick on which one, and, as can be seen, LAWS solved the “whisk(e)y word marketing problem” for the poor hapless media long ago – but fat chance of that catching on at Whisky Advocate, right?), I would support that (I’d support building a time machine to do it), but that’s not the way things happened – and a lot of this stuff is now entrenched in labeling law. The world would also be much more simple for many on the internet if there was only one spelling for there/their/they’re (oh, I know, “there, there”), and the meaning is not lost to the reader for the use of the wrong one – but it’s still the wrong one. None of us wrote the rules on whisk(e)y, but it’s just irritating that people who want to be taken seriously(?) on the subject simply think those rules don’t apply.

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Oliver Klimek June 16, 2014 at 11:07 pm

I am a bit disappointed that you didn’t really answer my questions.

You are talking of rules. Who made these rules?. The US regulations speak of “whisky”, but nonetheless most of the US distillers use “whiskey”. Where is the rule here? Is it the “official” spelling of whisky or is it the convention of the majority of distillers who want to call it whiskey? Do you think it is less irritating to switch from one spelling to another on a distillery by distillery basis? This is not about forcing one single spelling for everything. It is about recognizing that spelling is arbitrary. There is nobody who made any rules that have to be obeyed.

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Jeff June 17, 2014 at 12:01 am

To be honest, I found most of your questions kind of silly – “am I saying this or that whisky should be excluded from this or that contest…” not really an issue, particularly if you just call your contest “Whisk(e)y of the Year”, which would actually be MORE useful as it would clearly show that all whiskies are included. Should “Whisky Advocate” stick to Scotch, Canadian, Japanese, Maker’s Mark and Dickel? Maybe, if doing so would somehow help the magazine to stop shilling for large segments of the industry and/or decide just who or what it is an “advocate” for – a bigger, and more important issue, I know, so not one to be considered here – OR the magazine could rename itself Whisk(e)y Advocate (it has renamed itself in the past). Who made these rules? I have no idea, and neither do you (any more than the culprit behind there/their/they’re can be identified) – but we both know they exist, and pre-date both of us, hence your piece. What exactly is the right spelling for the entirety of US distilled spirits from a grain mash that do not qualify as vodka? Again, by convention, the term “whiskey” is used with American spirits. Do I think it is less irritating to switch from one spelling to another on a distillery by distillery basis? Yes, I most certainly do, because a writer’s doing so shows care for what they are writing and doesn’t call into question that writer’s competence/knowledge of the subject through carelessness – I don’t assume that everyone who writes about whisk(e)y is an expert on the subject by virtue of the fact they have a keyboard, so every little clue helps.

I’m not talking about rules really in a legal sense (although they DO exist around this term – ARE many US whiskies in violation and/or stand apart from existing regulation, not by convention, but in point of law, because of their spelling? I honestly don’t know). But the different spellings exist by convention – just like the rest of the convoluted English language and spelling is not arbitrary – there are no rules that have to be obeyed in a legal sense (except where they DO have to be obeyed), but dictionaries exist for a reason. And I’m not advocating “forcing” anyone to use a single spelling, only advocating that, given the two spellings, they use the right one in the right context, just as I’d support that for any other part of language.

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Ádám Oláh June 17, 2014 at 12:19 pm

There’s been some good articles about the origins of the two spellings on EZdrinking (see https://eric-zandona.squarespace.com/?tag=Whiskey+vs+Whisky )

Some interesting details:
– Apparently, both spellings appeared in the mid-18th century, preceded by at least seven other anglicised spellings
– while both survived, “whiskey” was prevalent in the 1st half of the 19th century, both in American and British books, before it lost favour at both sides
– there’s no trace that a difference was made in the meaning of whisky and whiskey prior to the 1950’s, even though both were both used in American press
– The latest Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines Scotch as “whiskey distilled in Scotland esp. from malted barley – called also Scotch whisky.” (“Scotch whisky” is in italics, meaning it’s a foreign expression.) So much for that well-established convention.

Since this out-of-nowhere rule is neither recognised nor applied universally (not in laws, not on labels, not in dictionaries), and so it cannot be even used consistently, there’s no reason for me to obey it. (And it’s just irritating that people who want to be taken seriously(?) on the subject insist that I do nevertheless.)

It should be noted, however, that “whisky” is not included in contemporary American English vocabulary, and neither “whiskey” is in British English (according to Merriam-Websters and Oxford Learner’s, respectively). It’s technically a spelling mistake to refer to the category as “whiskey” in an BrE text and vice versa. (Much like writing “tire” just because you have U.S. made tyres in mind.)

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Jeff June 17, 2014 at 10:43 pm

The rule might be “out of nowhere” in the sense that no one can trace its origin, but certainly not in the sense that “it doesn’t already exist by convention” or “hey, I just made this up yesterday, I want you guys to follow it”. As far as it not being universally recognized, I don’t know of any respected books on the subject that don’t note the spelling distinction, although many do choose “whiskey” (or, yes, “whisky”) as the general term for the spirit as a whole. As for being taken seriously, you can indeed write about “Scotch or Canadian whiskey” and “Irish or American whisky” (or trot out one or more of the at least seven other anglicised spellings) and then explain that you’re doing so in protest against the oppression of the spelling distinction, but it will take far more room than if you simply follow convention and, if you don’t explain yourself, readers will either think it’s a typo or that you can’t even get the basics right – personal choice, of course.

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two-bit cowboy June 19, 2014 at 6:43 am

Hi Oliver,

I’ve followed the replies to your erudite tome with interest. It seems some “get it” and some don’t. Oh, well. You’ve done a terrific job of making child’s play out of something that truly is child’s play. Who cares how you spell “that” word?

Malt Advocate magazine used to be about whisky. Now, Whisky Advocate magazine seems to be about whiskey. So what?

Whisk(e)y is the umbrella. How each country or distillery or writer interprets the spirit is an individual thing, as you’ve clearly shown. The only thing that should be taken seriously is the spirit itself.

Slainte, (oh, heaven forbid if I’ve spelled that wrong)

Bob

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Jeff June 19, 2014 at 8:25 pm

If you think that Whisky Advocate is about whisky or whiskey, and not marketing, it’s you that doesn’t get it. Oh well.

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EG July 6, 2014 at 11:07 pm

To anyone who wants to take people to task over this petty distinction:

1) You are not impressing us with your superior knowledge and attention to detail. You’re annoying us with your smugness and self-righteousness. You’re making it less, rather than more fun, for everyone (including yourselves, if you let it make you this angry). It’s possible to know a great deal about whisky and not care all that much about this distinction. If it makes you feel good on a personal level to use this distinction in your own writing, that’s fine – heck, I use “whisky” when referring to Scotch and “whiskey” when I’m referring to Irish whiskey myself – just don’t let yourself think harping at people about this is a good way to make friends and influence people.

2) Stop pretending to be confused by people who aren’t saying “whiskey and whisky” or whisk(e)y. If someone only says “whisky” or only says “whiskey”. It should be obvious from context what is intended.

3) If you insist on arguing with people about this, don’t say “whiskey” and “whisky” are inherently different drinks. There are differences between George Dickel and Jack Daniels. The fact that one brand spells it with an “e” and the other doesn’t has nothing to do with any difference involving how the products taste or are made (here’s a hint – this is why most people don’t care about this issue). And no, the different spellings have no legal consequences (yes, I am a lawyer). If George Dickel decided to start using the “whiskey” spelling one day; that fact would, by itself, have no consequence for the actual drink in the bottle.

4) If you must point this out to somebody, don’t assume you’re the first person to bring it up. Anyone who has spent any significant amount of time researching and writing about whiskey knows that some people get really hung up on this distinction. If they’re not using the term the way you want, it’s much more likely that they don’t care than that they don’t know.

To reiterate, there’s nothing wrong with caring about this distinction or observing it carefully in your own writing. Just don’t write angry diatribes against people who don’t. This is one of those little things you just have to let go.

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Jeff July 7, 2014 at 11:47 pm

1. I’m not trying to impress anyone with my “superior knowledge” – I didn’t invent the rules, but they exist by convention. Trying to reinvent the wheel here just serves no purpose, and your personal observation of the same rules undercuts the rest of your “diatribe”. And, perhaps unlike for yourself, this is not a PR exercise for me – I’m stating and defending an opinion, not trying to be popular.

2. When someone writes of “Irish whisky”, it’s not clear to me what they mean or don’t, or what they do or don’t know (see point #4).

3. I don’t say that they are “inherently different drinks” (please show me where I do) – I say there are different spellings; see point #1. As for legal distinctions, I’ve yet to see the bottle legally labeled “Scotch Whiskey”. Where such distinctions do or do not exist/apply in the US, I had no opinion; I simply said I didn’t know.

4. “If they’re not using the term the way you want, it’s much more likely that they don’t care than that they don’t know.” Actually, I find it FAR more often the case that where this spelling issue is ignored, it’s the tip of the iceberg in terms of errors and misinformation – often “they”, evidently, quite often just “don’t know”.

5. You’re not my arbiter, so I’ll write what I like. Thanks.

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EG July 8, 2014 at 1:47 am

Trying to reinvent the wheel here just serves no purpose

Who’s trying to reinvent the wheel? I don’t understand how not investing a lot of time and effort in a not-very-meaningful distinction constitutes “reinventing the wheel.” There’s a difference betwen making new rules and ignoring ones you don’t care about.

your personal observation of the same rules undercuts the rest of your “diatribe”.

If you read what I wrote, you’d see that I didn’t say there was anything wrong with caring about or observing this rule. There is something very much wrong with being an obnoxious schoolmarm who lectures people about this.

And, perhaps unlike for yourself, this is not a PR exercise for me – I’m stating and defending an opinion, not trying to be popular.

Posting anonymously on a blog that probably no one I know or met has read would be an awfully strange PR move on my part.

I don’t say that they are “inherently different drinks” (please show me where I do) – I say there are different spellings; see point #1.

I wasn’t responding to anything you wrote. I didn’t even read your posts. That should have been apparent to you, given that (a) I didn’t use the REPLY button in response to anything you said, (b) I don’t mention your name anywhere, and (c) I was talking about things you weren’t. I was expressing my general irritation with people who use this issue as a stick to beat people with. It’s not all about you, buddy.

You’re not my arbiter, so I’ll write what I like. Thanks.

Not sure where I claimed authority to stop you from writing anything, especially since I wasn’t responding to anything in particular you wrote.. And if I were, it would still be irrelevant. You have a right to write whatever you want. Other people have a right to criticize what you write. Free speech runs both ways.

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Jeff July 9, 2014 at 8:23 pm

‘”To anyone who wants to take people to task over this petty distinction” but “it’s not all about you, buddy” yet “other people have a right to criticize what you write. Free speech runs both ways.” – you intentionally paint with a broad brush, and I certainly was painted with it – and I responded to that. As for “free speech running both ways”, I wouldn’t have it any other way – the more people talk about whisk(e)y, the greater the chance that some truth might leak into the conversation.

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Ádám Oláh July 8, 2014 at 10:11 am

As for legal distinctions, Scotch may only be labeled as “Scotch whisky” indeed, since there are no alternative spellings registered for this GI, but this is where legal distinctions end. It also doesn’t automatically mean that you should never call it whiskey, because that would also mean that “Bayerischer Kräuterlikör” shouldn’t ever be called a herbal liqueur or “Ron de Granada” a rum, and so on, simply because that’s not how they are labeled. Guess it wouldn’t make much sense.

Irish whisky still has “Irish whisky”, “Irish whiskey” and “Uisce Beatha Éireannach” registered as legit spellings (see 110/2008 EC), even though Irish Distillers Limited. – owning every single one of them – uniformised Irish brands as “whiskey” in the 1970’s.

It should be already obvious to you that the U.S. does not make any legal distinctions, provided you don’t have ideas on distinction between “bourbon whiskey” and “bourbon whisky”. As a matter of fact, last year’s Tennessee whisky regulation features both spellings as equal alternatives. The aforementioned EU regulation also recognises both spellings for bourbon and Tennessee whiskies (as protected U.S. products).

So, the only legal distinction is that Scotch must be labeled as “whisky”, which is only natural, since that’s how whisky is called in Scottish English! Of course, there’s a widespread convention about distinguishing whisky and whiskey, making weird pairs of the most different styles of whisky possible, and dating back to the 1950’s. However, 60 years didn’t make it any more meaningful, and since there are several whisky brands that still don’t give a damn about it, I don’t see how anyone else could be blamed for the same. Like EG says, the distinction itself was the reinvention of the wheel – and it’s nowhere near as round as the original one.

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Jeff July 9, 2014 at 9:07 pm

“It should be already obvious to you that the U.S. does not make any legal distinctions, provided you don’t have ideas on distinction between “bourbon whiskey” and “bourbon whisky”. – my point was that if US regulations, as you point out, use “whisky”, I didn’t know what, if any, legal ramifications there could be if someone wanted to get things sticky by pointing out that the majority of US spirits could be argued to be mislabelled. As for distinctions between spirits, that is largely in the eye of the beholder in any case, but I do know what the spelling rules are.

As for the rest, call it what you like, but I think that the majority of rest of the world, for good or ill, has already made its decision, if only by convention. I don’t patrol the Web trying to correct every error over the usage of whisky/whiskey (I am one of those who shrug my shoulders in the actual event), but no one can tell me that, to those who are aware of the rules, these errors, like any other spelling errors, aren’t disruptive to reading – one notices them because they know that they’re wrong whether the sense is conveyed, as in the case with other typos, by the context or not. So rather than have that disruption, or have to wonder if the writer knows what they are writing about, or have to wonder if they are staging some personal protest over the oppression of language convention which has changed in the past 60 or more years, I’d just prefer that it didn’t occur – silly me.

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kinkminos October 2, 2014 at 11:39 am

i don’t know who he is, but young master jeff strikes me as being just a little bit wound up. perhaps we should be nice to him and offer him a wee dram of something nice so he can unwind.

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Sandy Sneddon October 15, 2014 at 10:53 pm

Charles Mclean, perhaps the best known whisky (oops!) writer around, devotes some space to this debate in his 2004 book “McLean’s Miscellany of Whisky”. Page 28, … it has become customary for ‘whisky’ to refer to Scotch, Canadian and Japanese whiskies, while “whiskey” is reserved for the products of ireland and America. But this is convention, not law….”

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Jeff October 16, 2014 at 1:20 pm

I didn’t claim it was anything BUT mostly convention; I just don’t see the point of going against convention to prove some esoteric point about language – but in Scotland, it IS law.

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Jeff October 18, 2014 at 11:22 am

Now here’s a real kick in the head – but it’s my fault for asking the question:

Dear Jeff

Thank you for your email inquiry.

The law regarding the labelling of Scotch Whisky is set out in The Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009. Regulation 8 provides that Scotch Whisky must be sold under one of the compulsory sales descriptions: Single Malt Scotch Whisky, Single Grain Scotch Whisky, Blended Malt Scotch Whisky, Blended Grain Scotch Whisky or Blended Scotch Whisky. This description must appear on the front label of the bottle and any other packaging that it is displayed in.

Regulation 8 goes on to state that the category description must be printed in a conspicuous place in such a way so that it is easily visible and legible to the naked eye and indelible, so that it is clear that it is the sales description of the whisky. It must be at least as prominent as any other description of the whisky apart from a) any separate reference to “Scotch Whisky”, b) any age statement, or c) any descriptive words in the brand name.

Accordingly it would not be illegal to use the phrase “Scotch Whiskey” but it cannot replace, or be more prominent than, the legal sales description e.g. Single Malt Scotch Whisky. On a practical level, the use of two different spellings on the packaging is likely to cause consumer confusion and we would discourage it.

Please let me know if you require any further information.

Kind regards

Lindesay M. Low
Legal Adviser
Legal Affairs Department
Scotch Whisky Association

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Jeff October 20, 2014 at 1:13 pm

And, now, an even BIGGER kick in the head; apparently, spelling matters to someone:

Dear Sir

Thank you for your enquiry.

It would not be legal to market a product as “Scotch Whiskey”.

This is because the compulsory sales denominations which must be used for the different categories of spirit drinks are laid down in Regulation (EC) No 110/2008, and only the words “Scotch Whisky” are registered in Annex III of that Regulation.

Regards

Magnus Cormack
Director of Legal Affairs
Legal Affairs Department
Scotch Whisky Association

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