Whisky or Whiskey? What’s in a name…an ‘e’, yes or no?
When my girls were little and we would be waiting for something/someone (think doctor’s office, mechanics, restaurant table, etc.), I would play a little spelling game with them based on their favorite show at the time, “Wheel of Fortune” (in my house aka “the game show”). We would select a sign nearby, and I would say “I want to buy an ‘m’.” Their job was to go and point to that letter and we would all squeal in delight. I was always introducing games like those, especially when we were in the car. One we still play is verbal Mastermind (One person says, “I’m think of a word. It’s 4 letters long. It begins with a ‘ < first letter of the word >’ and ends with a ‘< last letter of the word >’.” The other person starts guessing words. Fun, huh?!). I also made them practice their math by asking them to calculate tips and sale discounts, first on paper, then mentally when they were older. It was a fun childhood for them.
Pivoting back to the topic, I’ve wondered how the whisky/whiskey situation came about, and how to remember when to use which term. When I went to research this topic, there were a number of different explanations. Luckily, the way to remember when to use the ‘e’ is rather easy. Let’s start with that:
Whiskey/whisky mnemonics (from thekitchn website)
Here’s a quick way to remember how some of the world’s biggest producers spell their products: Countries that have E’s in their names (UnitEd StatEs and IrEland) tend to spell it whiskEy (plural whiskeys)
Countries without E’s in their names (Canada, Scotland, and Japan) spell it whisky (plural whiskies)
[Just a side note, I guess I’ve been spelling the plural of whisky wrong…I used “whiskys” when it should be “whiskies.” Mea Culpa]
Ok, but whyyyyyy is it different?! (Sorry, I’m in a whiny mood today). Here are but a few of the possible explanations:
The typewriter theory: According to the sources cited from thekitchn, the spelling problem is based on copy editing style vs. and the actual liquor style being discussed. Here is their definition of liquor styles:
Before we get going, let’s define the liquor in general:
No matter how you spell it, whisky/ey is an umbrella term for a type of spirit distilled from a mash of fermented grains.
Now let’s look at some different types:
Within the broad category of whisky/ey are many sub-categories, including bourbon, rye, Tennessee, Scotch, Irish, and Canadian style whiskies. The manufacture of each of these types of whisky/ey is guided and regulated by the government of the spirit’s country of origin. As a result, Canadian whisky, for example, is a whole different animal from Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey, and American-style whiskeys such as Tennessee, bourbon, and straight rye.
The problem seems to arise when a copy editor chooses a particular style used by their organization without regard to the country of origin. The New York Times had a blanket policy of using “whiskey” for everything, then recently changed to the spelling preferred by the country of origin after received many complaints (look how inclusive they are). So the spelling is back to being decided by the manufacturer and country of origin again, at least for the NYT.
The quality theory: Another explanation comes from the Men’s Journal website. While this site also talks about the spelling preferences from the country of origin, here’s how they explained the spelling difference came about:
Where the original variation in spelling came from is still a matter of debate. “Legend has it that during the 1800s, most Scotch Whisky was considered as very low quality,” says Fletcher*. Due to this, American and Irish distillers began adding the “e” in order to show a point of distinction to consumers that the quality of their whiskey was higher than that of Scotch. Today, it’s little more than a regional tradition — one that causes its share of confusion.
The site goes on to say that while US distillers generally uses the ‘e’, there are exceptions, e.g. George Dickel, Old Forester, and Maker’s Mark, the latter as a tribute to the distiller’s Scottish heritage. Some people just gotta be different…
The duality theory: From the most venerable of sources (ok, it’s Wikipedia…how much research are you expecting me to do?), comes this sweet tidbit:
There are two schools of thought on the issue. One is that the spelling difference is simply a matter of regional language convention for the spelling of a word, indicating that the spelling varies depending on the intended audience or the background or personal preferences of the writer (like the difference between color and colour; or recognize and recognise), and the other is that the spelling should depend on the style or origin of the spirit being described.
Now I take this explanation to mean that the spelling is based on the conventions of the region or the writer AND/OR the type of spirit we’re discussing and where it came from. Kind of wish-washy, if you ask me.
These are just the first three sites that came up when I googled “whisky vs whiskey spelling.” There were about 123,000 other places I could visit for an explanation, but, well, who has that kind of time. If I had to choose a theory, I can’t deny the inherent judgmental tone of the second theory…it’s just so in keeping with the era. Let’s spell our product differently so as not to be asscoiated with those products…it’s kind of like the Dr. Suess book, The Sneeches.
However we spell it, whisky or whiskey, we certainly get to taste it. (Yay!)
Here are my notes from two recent Irish Whiskey tasting at Gordons DTX. These expressions were a good introduction to Irish whiskey for me. The major difference between Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky is that the former is distilled 3 times instead of 2 and can use both malted and unmalted barley in its mash (single malt scotch only uses malted barley). The unmalted barley introduces a greener aroma and flavor to the spirit (think grass or hay), and the triple distillation produces a lighter body.
Alex Thibault, the Brand Ambassador for John Powers and all pot still whiskey out of Midleton Distillery, Cork Ireland, headed up our tasting. He is the expert on Irish Whiskey. Midleton is part of the group that produces Jameson (the best selling Irish whiskey in the world), Tullamore Dew, Powers, Paddy, Redbreast, Green Spot, and Yellow Spot. The distiller’s tasting notes can be found on Jameson’s shopping website:
Midleton Distillery at Gordon’s DTX (3/8/17)
1. Green Spot
- Nose: apples, honey
- Taste: starts smooth, very sweet, full body
- Finish: cotton candy
- Higher unmarked barley, almost too sweet, not something I would buy
2. Yellow Spot 12 YR Old
- Nose: honey, sweet, light
- Taste: smooth start, light body, some cinnamon, creamy
- Finish: slight spicy grows to finish,
- Wine cask influence, bourbon, sherry, Malaga wine cask
3. Red Breast 12 YR Old
- Nose: very lightly sweet, not much aroma, floral
- Taste: very smooth entrance, lightly oily but light body, sweet & spicy
- Finish: warm spices at the very end
- Bourbon & sherry cask blend 3:1
- Approachable & drinkable, very nice
4. Red Breast Cask Strength 12 YR Old
- Nose: heavy spice immediately, cinnamon, high alcoholic w/ water pineapple
- Taste: alcohol immediately, hard to tease out; w/ water, still high spice, peppers
- Finish: pepper grows strongly w/ alcohol
- Still harsh, not my favorite kind
5. Red Breast Lustau
- Nose: green pear, some sweetness
- Taste: just smoothness goodness, no water needed
- Finish: sweetness all the way, no pepper or spice, caramel
- New, 2nd fill bourbon & sherry
6. Red Breast 15 YR Old
- Nose: caramel,some tropical aroma
- Taste: some spice entrance, oily but not creamy,
- Finish: long peppery finish
Gordon’s treated us to a second Irish Whiskey tasting the following week, Tullamore D.E.W. Irish whiskey. Here’s how Gordon’s introduced it:
Tullamore began producing whiskey in Tullamore, Ireland in 1829 and quickly became one of the most popular Irish whiskies in the world. The D.E.W. initials come from the once town favorite and distillery manager named Daniel E. Williams. Similar to the fate of other Irish brands, Tullamore closed it’s distillery doors in 1963 and it wasn’t until 2014 that they officially started producing whiskey again at their new facility just down the road from the original building.
Tullamore D.E.W. at Gordon’s DTX (3/8/17)
1. Tullamore D.E.W. Irish Whiskey
- Nose: hay, fruit
- Taste: smooth entry, grass, easy & approachable
- Finish: easy finish, no pepper, doesn’t linger
2. Tullamore D.E.W. 12 Year Old Irish Whiskey
- Nose: cinnamon, honey, nutmeg
- Taste: smooth entry, pears, grassy, light body, sips for summer, lemons
- Finish: cinnamon lingers
- My favorite…best of the lot
3. Tullamore D.E.W. 14 Year Old Irish Whiskey
- Nose: honey, light odor, pears
- Taste: slight cinnamon, cloves
- Finish: pear to finish, fruity, med lingering, higher spice grows
- Aged in Madeira, sherry, ex bourbon casks
- Fuller body, 100% malted barley
- Very nice character
4. Tullamore D.E.W. 15 Year Old Irish Whiskey
- Nose: tropical fruit, peaches
- Taste: smooth entry, bananas, no spice, light body
- Finish: sweet finish, light, rum
- Also a favorite
All these expressions definitely felt lighter in the mouth, smooth and nicely drinkable. The green influence from the unmalted barley was quite noticeable, especially in the Tullamore D.E.W. offerings. These Irish whiskies are something I could envision drinking on a summer’s day.
So what do you think about the ‘e’ question? I actually like having the distinction…it’s just another identifier tool for me, helping with my (currently limited, but growing) set of expectations. Do you have another theory for the difference in spelling? If so, I’d love to hear it. Either way you spell it (or maybe ‘ither’ way?), whisk(e)y is great to drink.
Slainté! L’chaim! Cheers!