Whiskey vs Whisky: Controversy and Confusion
Have you ever noticed that there are two different spellings for whiskey? To be honest I didn't think much about it until I began working on a book about all the whiskey distilleries in the world. As I researched distilleries across Africa, Asia, Australia, and continental Europe I noticed that none of them spelled whisky with an e. I began searching for an answer to why some producers of aged grain spirits spell its name with and e and some spell it without and why this difference is largely bound by geography.
What I found instead was an internet controversy about what spelling was “correct” and when each should or shouldn't be used. It all started with a December 2008 article from the New York Times about the high quality and diversity of Scotch whiskies, particularly from Speyside. The author received a large number of letters and emails from angry readers that seemed to take personal offense at the fact that he would dare label Scotch a whiskEy! The outrage at this particular instance is hard to take seriously since the author made it plain that he was aware of the preferred spelling and that his editor insisted on the American spelling.
In response to the backlash from readers, the New York Times agreed to change their style guidelines and allow their writers to refer to aged grain spirits of Scottish or Canadian origin as whisky. The primary problem with this is that the next New York Times article written about whiskEy from almost any country in the world is likely to face the same problem, seeing as most of the world spell whisky without an e.
This story also inspired numerous sites and blogs to “set the record straight” on when and in what context to use whisky or whiskey. While most of these guides decided to included Japan in their list of countries that spell whisky without an e they still missed 95% of the globe. Even still, most of these guides for spelling whiskey or whisky completely avoided the question of why the spelling differs.
However two brave souls were willing to suggest answers for why, by in large, the US and Ireland spell whiskey with an e and the rest of the world doesn't. Charles Cowdery's answer for why there are two spellings for whiskey and whisky is that this is true for other English words. He posited that whiskey/whisky is just one of many English words that have more than one acceptable spelling, like color or colour. He suggested that the only determining factor for when one spelling should be used instead of another is where the person writing the word lives. In other words, writers that use American English should always spell whiskey with an e while writers that use British English should spell whisky without an e no mater where the spirit comes from or how it is spelt in its home country. While this is a valid argument, its not a fully satisfying answer to the question.
The second, and most complete answer for why the US and Ireland spell whiskey with an e and others do not, can be found on multiple sites but it most likely comes from just one source. Masters of Malt, an online store for all things Whiskey and Whisky, claims that the second spelling originated in the 19th century. They claim that in the 1870s Scotch whisky was of such poor quality that it was giving whisky exported to the US a bad reputation. Irish distillers hoping to disassociate themselves from the bad Scotch decided to add an e to indicate their higher quality. Because adding more letters to a word always means its fancier. Immediately this answer strikes me as historically inaccurate and still leaves me curious about the origins of the two spellings.
Unsatisfied with what the internet has to offer, I will begin my own search for the story of why whisky/whiskey has two spellings. I will continue to post my findings and my evidence so that others interested in the topic can trust that what I write is based on real documentation and not just a story designed to make one whiskey producing region look better than another.