Confusion Over Whiskey vs. Whisky – What’s In a Name?

Drinkslover’s comment left on a previous “What’s In a Name” entry led to an email exchange wherein I was told that “Over on this side of the pond, only Scotch is called whisky. US, Canadian and Irish are all strictly referred to as whiskey here, and anyone doing otherwise in a blog or any drinks literature would be shot down.”

Feeling more than a little threatened I thought that I’d better look into this a little closer.

First I took a closer look at the ATF guidelines which I used as my basis for making the distinction for names of US distilled alcohol. The word used there is whisky. In fact it is used 183 times in Part 5 of the Code of Federal Regulations – Labeling and Advertising of Distilled Spirits. But even the author of this riveting document became confused over these two words and used whiskey once.

Complicating the matter, the section of Part 5 that addresses Irish whiskey uses the word whisky. Obviously, the ATF has no respect for the tradition that has long recognized whisky and whiskey as Scottish and Irish respectively thus removing them as a relevant source for this discussion.

But where to turn? The Scottish maintain that the distinction is clear. What they make is whisky. What everyone else makes is whiskey. I suppose the argument eventually goes back to the unanswerable question: Who made it first? Which ever group that was should be able to call the stuff whatever they want.

That’s all interesting but it doesn’t get us any closer to answering the question – what the hell do we call it if it’s brewed in the US?

Even the distillers themselves can’t seem to agree on this although there does seem to be a clear favorite:
Maker’s Mark –> whisky
Knob Creek –> whiskey
Four Roses –> whiskey
Early Times –> whisky
Jack Daniels –> whiskey
Woodford Reserve –> whiskey

My completely unscientific survey finds that the majority of US distillers respect Scotland’s claim to whisky. And I will do so as well.

16 Comments on "Confusion Over Whiskey vs. Whisky – What’s In a Name?"

  1. JF August 29, 2007 at 2:46 pm - Reply

    At the LCBO – Liquor Control Board of Canada – there’s 54 “whisky’s” and 24 “whiskey’s” listed.

    And when you go into a store, most of the items you listed here are filed in the Bourbon section. That neatly avoids any spelling confusion.

  2. Eric April 2, 2008 at 1:57 pm - Reply

    The commonly accept distinction is that the spelling “whisky” is used for Scotch and Canadian whisky, whereas the spelling “whiskey” is used for U.S. and Irish whiskey. Individual manufacturers (where this is not regulated by law…no idea if it is anywhere) can of course use whatever spelling they want. The Scots may well chauvinistically refuse to recognize the legitimacy of Canada using the same spelling as them, but dictionaries do.

    The whole thing is rather silly anyway. A few hundred years ago, spelling wasn’t standardized and both spellings (and perhaps others) of the word used mixed willy-nilly, as were the spellings of most other words. At some point, the different regions gravitated toward standardizing on one or the other.

  3. Jay Hosephat October 12, 2008 at 10:48 pm - Reply

    It turns out that Maker’s Mark spells their whiskey ‘whisky’ due to their bourbon’s Scottish heritage.

    I believe that they are the only American distillery to use this particular spelling.

  4. Ashley November 2, 2008 at 7:16 am - Reply

    I didn’t notice any place in this discussion where George Dickel Tennessee Whisky was mentioned. Up until now George Dickel was the only U.S. whisk(e)y maker that I knew of that didn’t put the “e” in it. The explanation that I read somewhere was that George Dickel was claiming his product to be a rival in quality to Scotch whisky.

  5. Benny T November 30, 2009 at 6:14 am - Reply

    Actually all American (and Irish) products should be whiskey. In the past all where referred to as whisky but poor quality Scottish “whisky” flooded the market. As such an extra “e” was added to Irish and American products to distinguish the superior product. See:
    Naturally this may not be the case anymore but still it does somewhat disrupt the common snobbish myth that scotch was always better.

  6. Sean O February 16, 2010 at 10:33 pm - Reply

    I like Benny T’s explanation but would also submit, who cares what England’s lapdogs want?

  7. Cornelius Aesop March 19, 2010 at 10:36 am - Reply

    Whiskey and whisky both come from the Gaelic word ‘uisce’ so technically both are just an English spelling variation of the original pronunciation. Later on the distinguishing ‘e’ came from what Benny T explained above.

    All in all, who really cares how it’s spelled? What should matter is what you consider quality whiskey/whisky.

  8. eurowolf April 14, 2010 at 10:01 pm - Reply

    whisky = scottish
    whiskey = irish

    how the Americans use it..who cares

  9. Myrkk June 19, 2010 at 6:29 pm - Reply

    what eurowolf said………… ;o)

  10. Hogenmogen August 5, 2010 at 8:55 am - Reply

    I don’t know what the hulabaloo is all about. As a Kentucky resident, I’ve seen and tasted more varieties of bourbon than you can shake a corn cob pipe at. The emphasis is on the bourbon, not the whisky or whiskey. Bourbon was invented in Kentucky and has several exacting standards which make it difficult but not impossible to be distilled out of state.

    Although I’m not an expert on scotch, I would think that scotch would focus on the scotch part, and not on the whisky part as the nomenclature that they would want to protect. They should sue the 3M company for bastardizing their signature industry with some kind of transparent tape.

  11. Redfoxy September 3, 2011 at 10:50 pm - Reply

    When I taught bartending school, we stressed the history of the brews. Whisky does refer ONLY to Scotch Whisky. Whiskey generally refers to Irish Whiskey but carried over to the United States for most, if not all Whiskey’s. True Bourbon Whiskey ONLY comes from KY and Sour Mash Whiskey such as Jack Daniels ONLY comes from Tennessee….Just as true Champagne ONLY comes from the Champagne region of France. It’s been years since I taught bartending, so I do not recall where this information came from any more than I recall where the story of why the worm is in Mescal Tequilla did. History DOES matter, though….especially when speaking of the history of the Irish and the Scots. Make no mistake about that.

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