Should You Say “Whiskey” or “Whisky”?

It doesn’t matter whether you’re new to whiskey, or you’ve been drinking it for all your adult life – the two different spellings can be confusing. It seems that whiskey brands seem to spell it their own way, with no uniformity. Whiskeys that seem extremely similar might be spelled differently, posing the question: what is the difference between whisky and whiskey?

Different Kinds of Whiskey / Whisky

Whisky or whiskey
Within the quite broad category of whiskey, there are many subcategories. For instance, you can find rye, bourbon, Scotch, Canadian, Tennessee, and Irish whiskeys all available on the shelves of good liquor stores. Each of these whiskeys will be made in different ways, and using different combinations of ingredients. Rye whiskey, for instance, uses more rye – whereas other whiskeys will use a mash that is higher in other ingredients, like malt.

You will notice, too, that each bottle of these kinds of whiskey will spell ‘whiskey’ differently. This is where the whisky vs whiskey confusion begins.

What is the Difference Between Whiskey and Whisky?

Believe it or not, there isn’t actually any difference between the two. It may seem confusing to have spent years pondering the difference only to find this out, but the reality is simply that different companies and regions spell the word differently.

A column published in 2008 in the New York Times discusses this great controversy, and discovers a potential reason why there is a discrepancy in spelling. The reporter asked the Editor at Large of the Oxford English Dictionary, Jesse Sheidlower, why there is such a difference. Sheidlower replied that it is almost universally true that in places like Canada and Scotland, the “whisky” spelling is used – whereas, across the United States the rest of the world, the “whiskey” spelling is used instead.

Sheidlower also explained how the spelling seems particularly important to whiskey enthusiasts and aficionados. Whiskey drinkers in Scotland insist on spelling the drink “whisky,” and reject the attempt to change the spelling. For this reason, practically all whiskey that comes from Scotland will be printed “whisky” on the label.

Rumors and Old Tales

One old tale

suggests that the added “e” in whiskey was an attempt made by the Irish to differentiate their higher quality spirit from what they considered lower quality whiskey coming out of Scottish distilleries. The story goes that, in around 1870, Scotch whisky was still made of low quality ingredients and distilled badly in Coffey stills. To sell their products to the Americans at a higher price, the Irish distillers differentiated their whiskey by adding an “e.”

Whether this is true or not, the Americans almost universally use the “whiskey” spelling to this day, with just the Canadians and Scots using the traditional spelling.

Which One Should You Use?

So, which spelling do you use when writing? How are you supposed to know when “whiskey” is more suitable than “whiskey”? Does it depend which country you’re in, or where the whiskey you’re drinking comes from?

It is best to think about the audience you are writing to. If you are, for instance, writing to an American, then using the “whiskey” spelling will likely be more appropriate. This is the spelling that an American audience is used to. Similarly, if you are writing for a Scottish audience, consider instead using the “whisky” spelling for the same reason.

You may also wish to refer to Scottish whiskey as “whisky,” and American whiskey as “whiskey.” It might seem confusing at first, but you’ll soon learn that the whisky versus whiskey debate is predominantly a matter of region.

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