The world of whiskey is a complex and beautiful thing. Much like the drink itself, there are nuances, preferences and choices to be made. There are buzzwords, terminology and much history to be learnt. If you want to enter this rarefied and elite society, then you’ve got to earn it. One of the first conditions of entry into Club Whiskey (or Club Whisky) is to understand the difference between whiskey and whisky. And not only understand the difference but understand the history behind the pesky silent e. To e or not to e, that is the question …
Whiskey vs. Whisky
So, let’s make this easy for you. If it’s spelt whisky then you’re in Scotland, Japan, Canada or the rest of the world. Spell it whiskey and you’re in Ireland or in the United States. Conclusion: no e is the Scottish spelling, while with the e is Irish. Simples, right? If you’re happy with that, then you can stop reading now, our work here is done.
However, if you are eager to expand your expertise and would like us to explain why the excellent elixir from Eire employs an extra e then read on. Enjoy.
Why is it Whiskey in Ireland but Whisky in Scotland?
The word whisky comes from the Gaelic word usquebaugh, which translates into English as “the water of life”. Uisge (usque) meaning water, beatha (baugh) meaning life. Pronounced “a-squi-ball” or “a-squi-bar”, usquebaugh dates from the 15th century and was traditionally any strong spirit that would invigorate you; think also of aqua vitae, aquavit or the French eau de vie and you get the idea. Over time though, usquebaugh became synonymous with whiskey (and whisky, but we’re getting to that).
Irish monks brought the distillation process to the Emerald Isle after their travels on the continent in 1405. Distillation was already common practice on the continent as Phoenician sailors had been using the process as early as 2500 BC in order to make saltwater drinkable. The earliest Scottish record wasn't until 1494, for the sale of 1,120 lbs of malt to make aqua vita, or, you’ve guessed it, usquebaugh. Thus Irish producers had almost 100 extra years to perfect their craft. Which is just one of the reasons why Irish whiskey tends to be considered superior to Scotch (although don’t say that too loudly in Edinburgh, as we can’t be held responsible for what might happen).
The difference in spelling comes from the translation of the words in Irish and Scottish Gaelic. In the late 19th century, Scotch whisky was very poor quality, and Irish distillers were keen to differentiate their glorious product over Scotland’s inferior one. Taxes were applied to the drink in 1644, and the rest is whiskey history.
Does Whiskey Taste the Same as Whisky?
There is no question that both the Scottish and Irish believe their single malts to be the best on the market. Both have a lot of plus points and there’s no right or wrong answer here - taste is personal. However, because Irish whiskey is distilled three times (contrary to Scotch’s twice) connoisseurs would usually favour Irish’s smoother, lighter, fruiter taste profile. Scotch whisky is a grain whisky that gives it a full, heavy taste in the mouth. Irish whiskey by contrast is made from unmalted barley which gives it its famed mellowness.
What about Japanese whisky and American Whiskey
Yes, we thought you might ask that. Basically, it’s a tale of two cities. European colonisation of America in the 1600s meant that the spirit was already well-known Stateside at the time of the Irish immigration in the late 19th and early 20th century. Rye whiskey had been brewed in Tennessee since around 1780 but had yet to make an impact on the East Coast, where the majority of Irish immigrants had settled. It would take until the mid-1960s for Scotch to make an appearance with the arrival of George Dickel and his single malt, but by then it was too late. Whiskey it was and whiskey it will remain.
And the Rest of the World?
The origins of Japanese and Canadian whisky are less complex. Both of these countries take their inspiration from Scotch and thus retain the Caledonian spelling. Whiskeys from Canada and Japan are grain whiskeys are the little brothers to Scotch. To put it another way, they are the Liam to Noel or the Burgundy to Bordeaux - fabulously successful in their own right but owes much of its success to their better known sibling.
At the end of the day, Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey have more in common with each other than they would like to admit. But, as with every family, the smallest things give the biggest contrast, and the two spirits are as alike as they are different. Spelling aside.