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Whisky vs. Whiskey

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On any chilly evening, there's nothing more satisfying--if you don't count sharing a sleeping bag for "warmth"--than a slug of whisky. Or are you drinking whiskey, with an 'e'? It depends upon the origin of your bottle, and even then, it may not be so easy to get the spelling right. The debate never used to bother me. My interest in this discussion was always inversely related to the fullness of my glass. The older I get, however, the more I have a subconscious desire to make an ass out of myself--a direct relationship to same said glass.

The word whisk(e)y most likely evolved over a period of 400 years from the the Gaelic "uisge beatha" (Irish pronounciation: Ishka Baha; Scotish pronounciation: Ishga Baugh) which translates as "water of life." Other early English spellings of the time included "usquebea" and "iskie bae." By the time Henry II invaded Ireland the word had become "whisk(e)y" referring to any of the grain produced alcoholic spirits produced in the British isles. It was not until the 19th and later centuries that clear production and stylistic differences between Scottish, Irish, American, Canadian and Japanese whiskies were clearly defined.

Basically the naming rule is this: if it is from Scotland, Canada or Japan the word is "whisky" (without an 'e') and usually distinguished by its country of origin such as Scotch whisky. If it originates from Ireland or the United States, it has the 'e' and defined by its country (Irish whiskey), region (Tennessee whiskey), style (bourbon whiskey) or ingredients (rye whiskey). Here's where it gets complicated: Some American bourbon and whiskey brands, for whatever reason, do not to spell their brand with an 'e'. While Jack Daniels (a Tennessee whiskey) spells their brand with an 'e', the other Tennessee whisky, George Dickel, does not. Maker's Mark, Old Forester and Early Times do not spell theirs with an 'e' either.

Historically, the Americanization of British words involved shortening, simplifying and/or losing letters. So why do most American whiskeys have an 'e'? The Whisky Rebellion in 1794 doesn't have an 'e'. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' regulations (Title 27, Chapter 1, Part 5) which has definitions of the classes of spirits in the United States there is not a single use of the word "whisky" with an 'e'.

My Irish brother-in-law, who seems to have an answer for everything, Had the following explanation: "It has something to do with the harshness of Irish Gaelic as opposed to the softer sounding Scottish Gaelic. That and the Scots, who settled in with the English quicker than the Irish, were more likely to roll over and accept English spellings," he said with that Irish sparkle in his eye.

His theory of cultural pride carried over to the new world. If the distiller was Scottish, my Irish relative surmised, he made "whisky" while Irish distillers made "whiskey." As far as the Canadian spelling goes, "They've always been willing to accept anything England has offered them," he said. We haven't pulled out the genealogical charts of famous distillers to test this yet, but it's as good an explanation as any and enough to keep the debate going well past last call.

Today, the reason for the 'e' may be more business oriented. With international trade treaties, copyright and trademark laws, only spirits produced in Scotland can be called "Scotch whisky". Other laws protect Canadian whisky and Bourbon whiskey just as they protect Cognac and Tequila as a defined product brand. My own theory about Canada is that they took the "e" out of their whisky but added it back in to their lingo somewhere else, eh?