What’s In a Name: Whisky or Whiskey

This is the first in what will be an occasional series of posts that will explore the often confusing words that booze makers use on their labels.  If you’ve ever stood in front of the Italian wine section at your liquor store and tried to make sense of those labels then you know what I mean.  I’ll get to those Italian labels one day but for now, let’s explore one of the more fundamental labeling distinctions: whisky vs. whiskey.

The two words share the same etymology, coming down to us from the Gaelic uisgebeatha which means water of life. How true! But despite sharing the same history, the words do have specific and separate meanings.

Whisky mainly refers to Scotch whisky. It must be barrel aged for a minimum of 3 years in Scotland though most are aged for many times longer than that. Scotch whisky was traditionally made of alcohol distilled twice from a 100% barley mash though other grains are now allowed. 100% barley can still be had and is labeled malt whisky. When other grains, usually wheat, are used it is called grain whisky. When a whisky is produced entirely at one distillery is is called single malt. Blended malt whiskies are produced when Scotch from different distilleries are combined.

Whiskey is traditionally the domain of Ireland. Irish whiskey differs from Scotch whisky in a few of significant ways. First, Irish whiskey is also made from barley but not all of it is malted. Second, Irish whiskey is distilled three times. Third, during the kilning process the grains are not peat dried as they are in Scotch whisky production. These techniques make Irish whiskey much softer and rounder in flavor than Scotch with none of the smokey notes that are beloved of Scotch whisky drinkers.

When Scottish and Irish distillers moved to America they were faced with a much different environment in which to produce their water of life. Different available grains and a different social and legal climate resulted in a varied group of whiskies. I’ll explore these unique and relatively new whiskeys in the next installment of What’s In a Name.

But what are US  produced distilled spirits that fit this category called?  Whiskey seems to be most popular in casual usage but whisky is almost universally used ATF publications on the subject and, according to my causal survey of bottles at the liqour store, the prefered version for labelling.  So, either word seems to work but if you want to put a fine point on it, whisky is probably the best bet.

3 Comments on "What’s In a Name: Whisky or Whiskey"

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