The classic dilemma. A division of two Celtic brothers that’s larger than the sea between them. A common source of outrage among those “in the know” when a mistake has been made. Whiskey and whisky, what’s an “e” between friends? Quite a lot it would seem!
For basic reference America and Ireland use “whiskey” while Scotland, Canada, Japan and the rest of the world use “whisky”. The story of why, however, is far longer.
To begin with, let’s look at where the offending word originated to see if it can shed any light on the modern discrepancy.
What’s in a name?
It all begins with the birth of whisk(e)y in a Western European context, with the distillation process most likely arriving from the Arab world through monks returning from pilgrimage. Early distillers used grapes which are exceedingly rare in Ireland and Scotland, so barley was found to be an acceptable substitute and thus the wonderful drink came to life. So, what better name for it then but “the water of life”.
The original Gaelic form of “uisce beatha” in Ireland, or “uisge beatha” in Scotland, breaks down simply to uisce/uisge = water and beatha = life. They are most likely straight translations of the earlier Latin “aqua vitae”.
The first mention of the whiskey spirit is in the (Irish) Annals of Clonmacnoise, where the death of a chieftain was put down to an overly hefty dose at a Christmas party. Its first usage in the Gaelicized form appears in 1583 and over the following centuries it appeared in a number of variations, such as “usquebaugh”, “usquebae” and “iskie”. Thus, it would hardly be surprising if taking or leaving a simple “e” would be carried through to modern times. The real answer as to what perpetuated the difference may be more devious however.
Throughout the 19th century it was quite common for Irish (and American) whisk(e)y distillers to flip-flop between both usages, though whiskey was generally more common. For example, Jameson and Bushmills bottles can both be found with the whisky spelling. By the turn of the 19th century, the challenge from blended Scotch was becoming quite intense, so to differentiate themselves from what was seen as an inferior product, Irish distillers began to strictly adhere to whiskey as its favoured spelling. It would seem that their American counterparts followed suit for the same reasons.
What do they stand for now?
Today, with the differentiations locked in (it would be hard to see either side ever accepting defeat), we can look at whether or not there are actual differences between whiskey or whisky.
In general, if you ask for whiskey you can only get Irish or American, which in the first case should mean a triple distilled, unpeated single pot still tipple. The problem is that there are exceptions to all rules and these are no different. Connemara, for example, is Irish and peated, while Auchentoshan is a Scotch and triple distilled. That’s without even starting on the Americans who fall outside bourbon, Tennessee or rye categorizations.
For whisky, it doesn’t take a hardcore connoisseur to reckon that there are likely to be extremely significant differences between Japanese, Canadian and Australian whisky, never mind the massive variations in Scotland’s regions itself.
Thus, the name and what it’s used for counts for not much more than a geographical indicator from which some very general assumptions could be made. In the main it seems to be a battle most keenly fought between the Scots and the Irish, which probably comes down to their very close Celtic relationship. We all know how a family can get when whisk(e)y is involved!
In the end, apart from tradition and (mostly) friendly competition what matters most is what’s in the bottle, not what’s written on the front.