In a single story about whiskey, you may see it spelled with and without an “e.” It might seem confusing, but whiskey (and whisky) lovers place a deep importance on the spelling of their favorite spirit.
Why the difference? It all comes down to location, location, location.
In short, the United States and Ireland spell it “whiskey,” while the rest of the world spells it “whisky.” One good tool to remember is that countries with an “e” in the name (United States, Ireland) use the “e” while countries without an “e” (Scotland, Japan, India) do not.
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The start of whiskey spelling debate begins in the spirit’s ancestral homes: Ireland and the British Isles. Ireland and Scotland were the first countries to seriously produce whiskey, or “uisge breatha” (water of life). Over time, it became known as whiskey. In the Irish dialect, that meant an “ey” to end the word, and in the Scottish dialect that meant only a “y.”
The oldest licensed distillery in the world, Ireland’s Old Bushmills Distillery, has always spelled it with an “e.”
From there, the divide split along colonial lines. Places that were colonized by the United Kingdom drew their whisky knowledge from the whisky they were sent, which was primarily Scotch. The Johnnie Walker Striding Man strode his way across the globe, teaching people about whisky and the Scottish way of spelling things.
In early America, people initially used both Irish and Scottish spellings. A ration agreement for soldiers written by Alexander Hamilton and published in the Gazette of the United States in 1790 specified “half a jill of rum, brandy or whisky.” In 1791, the same publication spelled it “whiskey” in a story about Dublin. By 1791, the U.S. government officially weighed in on the spelling (in a way) with the 1791 Excise Whiskey Tax that led to 1794’s Whiskey Rebellion.
The influx of Irish immigrants to the U.S. due to famine in the 1800s led to a larger Irish than Scottish influence in America. In 1840, Old Bourbon County defined the American whiskey style by using corn. The company spelled whiskey with an “e” and many of the new distilleries followed suit, such as George Dickel, Old Forester, and Maker’s Mark.
Scotland and England maintained sway over how the rest of the whisky-drinking world spelled the spirit. Canada kept the e-free spelling. Japan, which is relatively new in terms of whisky prevalence, doesn’t use the “e” because it took inspiration from Scotland.
The subtle difference can seem insignificant, but people care. Deeply. In 2008, New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov wrote a story on Scotch and spelled it the American way. He received a rash of angry emails.
One reader from London wrote to Asimov with the comment: “I cannot pass over the unforgivable use by a serious writer on wines and spirits of ‘whiskey’ to refer to Scotch whisky.’’ He goes on to say: “I am afraid I found the constant misspelling of the product made your article quite unreadable. It is exactly the same as if you had called it ‘gin’ all the way through or were to describe Lafite as Burgundy. It is simply a basic error that a reputable writer should not make.’’
According to the Times style guide he was right. The Times guide wrote that “the general term covers bourbon, rye, Scotch and other liquors distilled from a mash of grain. For consistency, use this spelling even for liquors (typically Scotch) labeled whisky.”
The Times style guide changed later that year.
When it comes to spelling, things can get contentious. Just keep in mind when buying your whiskey: Spelling matters, but taste matters more.