What’s the Difference Between Whisky and Whisk(e)y?

Two Whisky GlassesHave you ever been in a bar where you were fortunate enough to witness two drunks arguing about the difference between “whisky” and “whiskey?” It’s about as entertaining as watching Roseanne Barr and Joy Behar argue about proper etiquette on a daytime TV show. So, anyway, what is the difference between whisky and whiskey?

We have good news: After long hours of painstaking research, we finally have the answer. The answer is… wait for it… wait for it…the letter ‘e’. That’s it. One letter, out of a 26-letter alphabet, is responsible for more arguments on St. Patrick’s Day than any other.

If it’s just a spelling issue, what’s the problem?

Now that you know the only difference between the two drinks is the occurrence or absence of a single letter, you might be wondering why the word “whiskey” engenders so much hostility. We would suspect it’s due partly to illiteracy and partly due to the obsession Americans seem to have with arguing. But let’s dig a little deeper, shall we?

According to a 2008 column by New York Times writer Eric Asimov, the whiskey controversy comes down to some liquor purists who believe American and Irish whiskey is not in the same league as some of their European counterparts. Apparently, the best whiskeys from Europe would not dare to include the ‘e’ in their names.

Furthermore, it would appear the official Stupid Rules for Arguments Regarding the Names of Liquor Products precludes the use of an ‘e’ if your whisky is oft-consumed by pretentious Gen Xers capable of accurately pronouncing every item on the Starbucks menu. These are the same people constantly reminding us to use the accent mark in the words “latté” and “résumé.”

What is whiskey anyway?

Regardless of how you spell it, whiskey is a finely distilled spirit made from grain mash. In America, the federal government officially recognizes nine different whiskeys, including bourbon, corn, malt, rye, rye malt, wheat, blended, light, and spirit. That’s too many to remember unless you’re a whiskey snob.

Here’s the deal in simple terms: If it’s a distilled spirit made from grain mash you can call it whiskey, unless it’s delivered to the liquor store by a really big guy from North Carolina driving a ’69 Dodge Charger and answering to the name Cooter or Darrell. In that case, the white lightning designation may be more appropriate.

If a distillery wants to make a bit more money on their product than Cooter does, they can leave out the ‘e’ on their labeling. Give it a good Scottish name and and impressive-looking coat of arms, and they’re in business.

As long as we’re talking about Scottish names, it’s generally the fans of Scottish whisky that get their britches in a bind over the spelling. The Scots take pride in the fact that their whiskey might be distilled as many as 20 times before being aged for three years in an oak barrel. Their good friends in Ireland only distill their whiskeys three times.

How do the Scots feel about a whiskey sour?

It’s true that in every group there are a number of people who love to stir up trouble. We suspect maybe that’s where the whiskey sour came from. If there’s any way to offend a whiskey purist from Scotland it’s to add lemon juice, sugar, and a little bit of egg yolk to a glass of bourbon.

If you want to get even more creative, Esquire Magazine offers a couple of other whiskey sour recipes. For example, the Dizzy Sour adds a couple of extra ingredients, including Benedictine and Jamaican rum. They suggest a garnish of pineapple if you’re feeling especially brave.

We wouldn’t recommend it if you’re inviting a bunch of friends over to screen “Braveheart.” Mel might jump right out of the TV and rip your head off, before he disembowels you.

So how do I spell the word for my own use?

Despite all of the valuable information we’ve included in this post, we’re back to the same question. How are we supposed to spell the word “whiskey” in any given situation? We suggest you take a look at theKitchn.com blog, which breaks it down according to country of origin.

For example, Americans prefer to use the spelling with the ‘e’. When referring to whiskeys made in America, include the extra letter. If you referring to whiskeys from Scotland, Canada, or Japan (yes, were serious) then leave out the extra letter. This way no one will get offended based on the foolish perception that spelling equals respect.

If you’re using the word in a letter to yourself, as a reminder to get down to the liquor store tomorrow, we suppose it doesn’t really matter. But if you’re writing a note on the refrigerator, and you happen to have a Scottish or Canadian exchange student staying in your home, you’re better off leaving the ‘e’ out of the spelling. No need to start an international incident over an alphanumeric character.