If you stroll down to your local liquor store and pick up a bottle of … what? Whisky or Whiskey? And what’s the difference? The issue does confuse people if and when they become aware of it.
Purists are insistent that Scotch, especially, needs to be spelt as “whisky”, without an “e” – always! No less an editorial board than the New York Times was forced to change its spelling guidance after an angry wave of outbursts from readers to their Food and Alcohol critic Erik Asimov using an “e” in the spelling while describing a single malt Scotch. At the time, the NYT Policy was that either “whisky” or “whiskey” could be used, interchangeably. After the plethora of complaints, the editorial board reconsidered and actually changed their guidance.
The Origin of the “Whisky” Name
The name whisky had a couple stops on the road to discovery. Originally, the names of spirits derived from the Latin term “Aqua vitae” (literally, distilled spirit) from the time that they were introduced to the British Isles (likely the 13th or 14th century). The name was passed down locally in Gaelic.
The Power of Enunciation – Differences in the Sound of the Name
In Scotland, the name was transformed into “Uisge Beatha”, based on the Scots Gaelic translation of the Latin terms. The divergence may have occurred for a couple of reasons, let’s look at the first one here. As we know, the English language is pronounced and spelt differently in different places. Similarly, back in the day, Irish Gaelic had a slightly different spelling (“Uisce Beatha”) and their pronunciation used a longer sound, which is where the “e” crept in later.
By the early 18th century, both Scotland and Ireland had translated the name of the spirit to “whisky”, spelt without an “e”. This much can be found from written records in Scotland around 1715 and in Ireland in 1738. However, the Scots pronounced the last syllable as “ky” and the Irish “key” – a throwback to the way the two versions of Gaelic differed.
During the next one hundred plus years, the name continued without an “e” in both Scotland and Ireland, with one notable exception. The Scots-Irish people of Northern Ireland added an “e” into the name officially (perhaps as a result of a stricter adherence to the Irish Gaelic tongue, we don’t know for sure). Interestingly enough, these Scottish Protestants soon emigrated in large numbers to what is now the USA, taking their spelling with them.
But the official spellings in most of the British Isles remained “whisky” without an “e” during this period. In fact, after the mass emigration among Scots-Irish, the venerable Bushmills Distillery in Northern Ireland “corrected” the spelling back to “whisky.”
The Second – Perhaps the Real – Reason
Two things happened to change the dynamic in the whisky market within a couple of decades. Ireland was the mecca of whisky brewing at the time, with Scotland being a distant second. So it was with some alarm that established distillers viewed the invention and widespread use of the continuous still by the Irishman Aeneas Coffey. A far cry from the venerable copper pot stills that were being used for batch production, Coffey’s machine allowed for a rapid rate of churn – namely, the speed at which whisky could be brewed and finished increased tremendously and costs dropped. At the time, the differences in taste and quality from switching stills were not well understood, so purists wrinkled their nose (somewhat literally) at these new-fangled devices spewing out unworthy libations.
If this was not bad enough, the Spirits Act of 1860 created a huge upheaval in the market. It allowed malt and grain to be mixed together and sold as whisky. Once again, the venerable breweries in Ireland were not interested in changing their methods and products, but the Scots went into a feeding frenzy – they started making batches of blended Scotch whisky, combining their heavy flavoured native Malt based offerings with the cheaper varieties of grain whisky that was now being mass-produced using Coffey’s continuous stills. This created a huge glut in the market, with new blended whisky being offered at a substantially cheaper price.
“The Truths About Whisky”
In 1879, the four largest Irish Distillers, John Jameson, William Jameson, George Roe and John Power banded together to produce a tome titled “The Truth About Whisky” wherein they vigorously argued against the encroachment on traditional methods of brewing. Such blends “cannot be whisky, and it ought not to be sold under that name”, according to the book.
The battleground was set. The Irish distillers had become keenly aware of the need to protect their turf by distinguishing their own products from what was being produced in Scotland. This is when the second – perhaps the real – split in spelling began to be firmed up. Since the issue became somewhat nationalistic (Scottish vs. Irish whisky), some of the Irish distillers began to distinguish their products further by reaching back to the “proper” old Northern Irish pronunciation – adding an “e” to call their products “whiskey”.
The argument about whether grain whisky and/or a continuous still distillation product was legitimate continued through the early 20th century, till a Royal Commission ruled that (a) any mix of grains and malts, (b) produced in either pot or continuous stills could be considered as whisky. By this time and through the period of the First World War, the spellings had become somewhat interchangeable in use, especially as Englishmen became involved as major arbiters of the fortunes of the market and many Scots distillers adopted the “e” in order to sell blended whiskey to markets where the spelling had been adopted.
This included the new markets in the US, where local bourbon whiskey production had begun, and the Irish immigrants had adopted the new name with the “e”.
The Picture Changes Again
Soon after World War I, two events rocked the whisky distillery world – Ireland gaining independence and the US entering into a prohibition era. With a huge loss in the market, the manufacturing sector underwent radical structural changes, with a consolidation among the large and medium sized distilleries. As a result, the much fewer number that remained kept the name “whiskey” around.
At the same time, Scottish distillers had established their own identity and were not keen on emulating the Irish – so they reverted back to “whisky” without the “e”. The final positions now began to harden. The last major house, Paddy’s, did hold out for a few more decades but eventually changed the spelling in the 1960s.
The US maintained the Bourbon Whiskey name and spelling, though some distilleries heavily invested in the Scottish tradition, such as Makers Mark, reverted back to “Whisky”, a tradition that continues to this day.
The Verdict: Where We Stand Today
Today, the simple rule of thumb is that countries with an “e” in their name, i.e. America and Ireland, also add an “e” to whiskey; whereas those without an “e”, e.g. Scotland, Canada, Japan and India follow the Scottish tradition of “whisky”. A lot of these influences were hardened due to the large Irish emigration to the US and the Scots/English emigration and influence on former British dominions such as Canada and India. Be that as it may, the changes are here to stay.
Feel free to enjoy Scotch Whisky or Jameson’s Irish Whiskey – but be careful how you spell them in case you enrage purists by misspelling the name.