Whisky vs. Whiskey: What’s the Difference?
Whisky vs. whiskey - what's in a name? Are these two spellings nothing more than an "I say toMAYto and you say toMAHto" situation, or does that extra 'e' have some kind of special significance?
When shopping for whiskey, it's common to see the drink listed as both whiskey and whisky. Most people know that there are two different ways to spell the word, but that's about as far as it goes. Luckily, we're here to clarify the situation by explaining why there are two different spellings for one drink and what the differences are.
How Do You Spell Whisk(e)y?
With so many spelling differences in the English language, it's understandable to assume that whisky might be the preferred spelling in American English while British English favors whiskey. This would follow the same pattern seen in the different ways of spelling aluminum and aluminium, color and colour, and check and cheque.
But you'll actually find that American whiskey is spelled with the 'e'. And that whiskey hailing from England and Scotland is spelled without the 'e'. But then you've got Canadian whisky (no 'e') over the border and Irish whiskey (with an 'e') across the water from Britain to confuse matters even more.
So what's the rule here? To cut a long story short, whisky and whiskey are one and the same. When choosing between these two options, there's no right or wrong way to spell it when talking in general terms. That said, there are some stipulations to bear in mind due to the spelling preferences favored by various places. For clarification, these preferences are:
Whisky (pl. whiskies): England, Scotland, Canada, Australia, Japan, and most other countries
Whiskey (pl. whiskeys): United States and Ireland
Here you can see that the US is one of only two countries that spell whiskey with the 'e'. Let's take a look at why that is and how the US came to share the same preference as Ireland.
The Origin of the Two Spellings
The history of this spelling debate goes all the way back to the birth of the spirit, straddled between Ireland and Scotland. These two nations were the first countries to take the production of whiskey seriously. In Ireland it was originally called uisce beatha, meaning water of life in Old Irish. In Scotland, the same meaning was spelled as uisge beatha in Scottish Gaelic.
Whiskey is simply an anglicized version of this name, stemming from a mispronunciation of either uisce or uisge. And since both whiskey and whisky sound the same, the exact spelling wasn't much of an issue before the printing press.
That said, whisky spelled without the 'e' tended to be more common, even in Ireland. This can be seen in the title of the book The Truths About Whisky, published in 1879 by the four biggest Dublin distillers at the time, John Jameson, William Jameson, George Roe, and John Power.
In the years that followed, though, several Irish distillers decided to take inspiration from the old Northern Irish spelling and call their drink whiskey. Their aim was to differentiate themselves and their whiskey from the increasingly ubiquitous and - as they saw it - inferior, Scottish whisky.
Nowadays, the Irish refer to their spirit as whiskey as a matter of tradition, albeit a fairly recent one. In Scotland, though, it is a matter of law to call the drink Scotch whisky. As such, it's legally incorrect to refer to the drink as Scotch whiskey.
As for the United States, both spellings were around at first. But the influx of Irish immigrants between 1820 and 1930 combined with the creation of American whiskey in 1840 solidified the preference for whiskey with an 'e'.
Types of Whiskey From Around the World
Now that you have some background information on the origins of the name whiskey, it's time to learn more about different types of whiskeys. And, as you might realize by now, these different types (and what you call them!) all depend on where they're from:
There are all kinds of different whiskeys produced across the US. But the name American whiskey refers to the spirit consisting of the proper mash bill made from the grain used. Some key types of American whiskey listed in the US Code of Federal Regulations include:
- Corn whiskey - made from mash that consists of at least 80 percent corn
- Rye whiskey - made from mash that consists of at least 51 percent rye
- Malt whiskey - made from mash that consists of at least 51 percent malted barley
- Rye malt whiskey - made from rye that consists of at least 51 percent malted rye
- Wheat whiskey - made from mash that consists of at least 51 percent wheat
To fulfill the terms of these labels, the whiskey must be distilled to no more than 80 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) and cannot contain coloring, caramel, or any additives. Some popular American whiskeys include Seagram’s Whiskey, Woodford Reserve Rye Mash Whiskey, Angel's Envy Rye Whiskey, and Knob Creek Rye Whiskey.
Although it's a type of American whiskey, bourbon whiskey is distinct enough to warrant its own category here. For a whiskey to be classified as bourbon it must be made from mash that consists of at least 51 percent corn. And, while it is produced in Kentucky, bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States.
Tennessee whiskey is similar to bourbon as it's also made with at least 51 percent corn. But Tennessee whiskey goes through charcoal filtering to ensure a mellow flavor develops during the fermentation and aging processes.
To earn the name Scotch whisky, the final product must be made in Scotland from malted barley and aged for at least three years in oak barrels. There are five distinct categories of Scotch whisky:
- Single grain Scotch whisky - made from a mixture of grains at a single distillery
- Single malt Scotch whisky - made from a malted barley mash at a single distillery using a pot still distillation process
- Blended grain Scotch whisky - a blend of two or more single grain Scotch whiskies from different distilleries
- Blended malt Scotch whisky - a blend of two or more single malt Scotch whiskies from different distilleries
- Blended Scotch whisky - a blend of one or more single malt Scotch whiskies with one or more single grain Scotch whiskies
Of these, single malt whiskies tend to attract more whisky connoisseurs than grain whiskies thanks to a diversity of flavors. Some popular Scotch whiskies include Johnnie Walker Blue Label Blended Scotch, Chivas Regal Royal Blended Scotch, and Glenfiddich Single Malt.
Irish whiskey might share the same spelling as the American versions listed above, but there are some key differences between the two types of whiskeys. You'll also find that Irish whiskey tends to have a smoother finish than the earthy overtones that are a common feature of many Scotch whisky brands.
In terms of the way it's made, there are various specifications a whiskey needs to meet to be classified as Irish whiskey, such as being made in Ireland. There are also various forms of Irish whiskey, including single malt, blended, and single pot still. These names refer to differences in the grain used and the distillation process.
Some popular Irish whiskey brands are Jameson Irish Whiskey and Teeling Single Grain Irish Whiskey. You'll also find matured Irish whiskeys, including Redbreast Irish Whiskey and Bushmills Rare Single Malt Irish Whiskey, which have both been aged for 21 years.
Canadian whisky regulations stipulate that Canadian whisky must be made in Canada with grains that include some malt or malt enzymes. It must also be aged three years in small wooden barrels and fulfill specific aroma, taste, and character attributions.
Black Velvet Canadian Rye Whisky with added rye spice and Crown Royal Blended Canadian Whisky are both popular Canadian whiskies, while Alberta Premium is one of the few remaining 100 percent rye grain rye whiskies made in North America.
The production of Japanese whisky began as a means of recreating the style of Scotch whisky. By 2024, for a product to be called Japanese whisky, it must be fermented, distilled, aged, and bottled in Japan, and must use water sourced from Japan and some portion of malted grain in its mash.
Whisky vs. Whiskey: Understanding the Difference
It's clear that when navigating the whisky vs. whiskey debate, spelling is important, but taste matters more.
As a general rule, you'll find that the US preference for whiskey spelled with an 'e' means that it's the go-to for most English language sites and online stores. But as we've demonstrated in this guide, it's also necessary to honor the whisky spelling preference favored by many leading whiskey-making nations when getting specific.
And after all that, we're sure you'd welcome a glass, no matter how it’s spelled! To view the entire ShopSK range of whiskeys from all over the world, check out our full collection here.