Whether served neat or on the rocks, with a splash of water or diluted with sweet vermouth and bitters, there is always a time for sipping whisky…or whiskey. How many times have you wondered why two versions are used for the same product? It smells the same, looks almost the same … Or you thought it was just a typo? To understand the genesis of this syntactic bifurcation we need to go back in time.
Uisge beatha is the Gaelic for ‘water of life’ (Aqua vitae), name given by Irish monks of the early Middle Ages to distilled alcohol. These two words shaped and deformed over the centuries, abbreviated and transformed to whiskey. From this day and since the 1494 manuscript attesting the distillation of whiskey in Scotland by friar John Cor, Scotland and Ireland claim the paternity of whiskey.
For more than 4 centuries whiskey is produced exclusively in Scotland and Ireland but the economic crisis that began in the late 18th century pushes Scottish and Irish to emigrate to New World (United States and Canada), taking their families with them. Here distillation is spreading really fast and conquests new land in Illinois, Pennsylvania and mainly the state of Kentucky where all the conditions are met for the production of whiskey on a large scale: pure water sources, favorable climate, a rich land where rye, barley and especially maize grow easy. It is said that the pastor and inventor Elijah Craig is the first who used the therm whiskey for his whiskey bourbon, after founded a distillery in approximately 1789. For this assertion, however, no sources can be found. There is not even a clear proof that he distilled alcohol at all and the first mention was only decades after his death.
For a while all whiskey was named without the additional ‘e’, so it was known as whisky . By 1870 the reputation of Scotch whisky was very poor, so Scottish distilleries flooded the market with cheaper spirits. The Irish and American distilleries adopted the ‘e’, calling it whiskey , distinguishing their product from Scottish spirits.
Although it’s not required in all cases, many whiskies are aged in barrels, which contributes to the spirit’s dark color and flavor. The type of barrel, aging length and climate will all have an impact on how the whisk(e)y will look and taste. In order to be able to use the name whiskey the spirit must be aged for at least 3 years in a cask.
In the case of Irish whiskey, although the ingredients remain substantially the same the distillation method differs: while most Scottish producers practice double distillation, the Irish have done triple distillation. In the late Victorian era, the Irish whiskey was the finest in the world and the whiskey of Dublin was recognized as one of the best. In order to differentiate the one of Dublin from the other whiskeys, the Dublin distilleries used the spelling whiskey, being imitated later by other distilleries. The last Irish whiskey was Paddy, who adopted the ‘e’ in 1966.
Today, whisky is generally used to refer to the whiskies distilled in Scotland, Islay, Japan, India or Canada, while whiskey is used in the United States and Ireland. Even though in 1968 the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms specified whisky as the right way to name the beverage in the United States, most US producers still use historical spelling. But with any rule there are a few exceptions. For example, George Dickel or Maker′s Mark Tennessee Whisky are spelled without the “e.”
So, an easy way to ace your spelling exams is to remember if the country isn’t spelled with an “e” then neither is the whisk(e)y.