A question as old as the tasty beverage itself causing a debate that remains unsettled among some even today; is it spelled whiskey or whisky? More importantly, why are there different spellings, and does it even make a difference?
The Water of Life
To start, we need to hop in the Abov time machine and travel back nearly six hundred years to 15th Century Ireland. Here we will find the earliest known written account of whiskey, but referred by its traditional Gaelic name, uisce beatha. Pronounced “ishka baha”, this literally translates to “water of life”. A fitting first name for one of humanity’s greatest discoveries.
As the English language developed, uisce became whisky, and the spirit we know and love spread. Fast forward to the late 1800s, and whisky was a booming business, with Ireland as it’s biggest producer and exporter. In fact, according to the Irish Times, “export records from the 1860s and 70s” showed “sales to Brazil, Mauritius, Panama, Honduras, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.” But, as so often happens in business, somebody else (Scotland) came along and found a way to make the product cheaper and in greater quantities.
Ireland vs Scotland; Whiskey vs Whisky
Up until this point, all whisky was just “whisky”, even in Ireland. The shift truly began when Scottish distillers embraced the technology of the Coffey Still (an Irish invention). As described in more detail here by the Whiskey Wash, the Coffey Still allowed for continuous commercial distillation. Therefore they were “faster and more efficient in terms of energy and labor than pot stills”. The main downside is the resulting quality of the product.
The Scots were using the cheap grain whisky produced from their Coffey Stills, and blending it with high quality pot still whisky to produce scotch in greater quantities than Irish single stills could match.
However, in order to set themselves apart, Ireland rebranded it’s “superior quality” spirit as Irish Whiskey, introducing the “e” for the first time in any naming conventions. Basically we have some clever marketer from the 1800s to thank for the two different spellings of the name, but clearly the “e” stuck. Check out this video from Flaviar to learn more about the history of Irish Whiskey.
Where in the World is it Whiskey or Whisky
The whiskey name game started simply as Irish Whiskey vs Scotch Whisky, but how has that shaped how we spell the word across the world today. Despite the prevalence of Irish Whiskey across the globe at the time, only one other country adopted the whiskey spelling. You guessed it, the United States of America.
Whether as another act of rebellion against Great Britain, or more likely due to the influx of Irish immigrants to the US as American domestic whiskey production began to ramp up, American whiskey makers adopted the “e”. One of the few major exceptions to this is Maker’s Mark. If you have paid close attention to any Maker’s Mark bottle, you will notice it is “Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky”. Huh? As Vinepair notes, Maker’s Mark adopted the Scottish spelling to honor to the family heritage of the owners.
Aside from the United States (sans Maker’s Mark) and Ireland, the rest of the world still spells it whisky. This includes major producing countries like Canada, Japan, Taiwan, and India, and also the UK and the rest of Europe and Asia. Or, you know, like most of the world.
So Whiskey or Whisky, Does it Matter?
At first glance, it is easy to assume that the different spellings are just the product of regional quirks in the evolution of language, like “flavor” vs “flavour” in different parts of the English speaking world. However, given the full historical context, the spelling difference is actually much stranger.
The intentional spelling change as part of the branding effort of an entire nation’s export is certainly unique. Although Irish Whiskey is going through a recent resurgence, production volumes continued to decline even after Scotch production took off. Internal politics, global conflicts, and US prohibition all proved disastrous for the industry for many decades.
From a business perspective, I would call the rebrand a complete failure. However, considering its wide use today thanks in part to the growth of the American Bourbon industry, the legacy of the “e” has clearly outlived its original intention.
Does the spelling really matter? While there are historical reasons that resulted in the regional difference in spelling, the short answer is no. Whether a bottle is labeled whiskey or whisky may give you a clue where it was distilled, it is impossible to make any assumption regarding flavor or quality based on the naming today. It all comes down to where you are from and where your drink is from.
So lets end the whiskey or whisky debate, bury the hatchet, and raise a glass. No matter how you spell it on the label, what is inside the bottle is why we are all here!