Whiskey vs. Whisky

In 2008 a NYTimes article on whiskey (with an e) created a firestorm of indignation. How dare they spell anything relating to Scotch as a “whiskey?” The author was, of course, simply following the guidelines set forth by the NYTimes: whiskey is spelled “whiskey.” Simple, right? Wrong. In fact, the response to this “unforgivable” sin was so vociferous that the Times actually changed their style guide! You can read the author’s response to the outcry.

Why do some people go apoplectic over this seemingly minor issue?

What we have here are two issues that have come together to create a situation where one can no longer be examined without reference to the other. The first issue is the simple one. Why are there two spellings? That is easily answered.

I'd like to buy a vowel. Maybe.
I’d like to buy a vowel. Maybe.

Whiskey or whisky? Well, that depends, is it color or colour? Theater or theatre? Really that’s all the difference is. Regional variations on the same word. But the phantasmagorical E has taken on a life of its own, and wars have started over less.

Whisk(e)y is a very important part of Irish and Scottish culture and economy. People identify very emotionally with their drink. So the E becomes a signifier just as evocative as a national soccer (er, football) team’s colo(u)rs.

At this point, many people resort to claims of legitimacy either through etymological or economic discussions. It’s a bit like A Game of Thrones, however. Your claim to the throne is legitimized by the size of your army, not the purity of your bloodline. And the same is true for our man in the middle, the troublesome vowel. What is right is what it says on the bottle of your favourite drink. You’ll think of a better reason later.

If you do much reading on the spirit in question, you will inevitably run across the “author’s rationale.” A statement at the beginning of the work stating the spelling to be used and a brief apology as to why, usually in hopes of staving off rabid, angry mobs. Even our hapless NYTimes author opened his piece with just such a disclaimer, which shielded him none.

Whiskey MapAnd so we have the Westeros of whiskey, countries lining up on either side of the dEvide. Fortunately there is a fairly easy way to remember which countries are in which camp. If the name of the country has an E in the name, so does the whisk(e)y.

America (or United Sates): whiskey
Ireland: whiskey
Scotland: whisky
Japan: whisky
India: whisky
Sweden: whisky

Generally, a newer entrant into the whiskey arena will go with the spelling that matches the style of whiskey they are creating. The Japanese started with single malt in the Scottish fashion and learned much of their whiskey techniques from the Scots directly, hence whisky.

A traitor to the cause?

These are just guidelines. It is good to keep in mind that some American whiskeys go with the non-e spelling (Maker’s Mark, for example). An interesting tidbit is that in the official US government guidelines, it is spelled whisky.

So how should one decide what to use? Here’s the generally accepted whiskey-spelling guidelines. If you are referring to a specific whiskey or region, use the spelling preferred for the specific instance. “I like Scotch whisky but will drink Irish whiskey as well.”

When referring to multiple whiskeys, pick one and charge ahead! Jim Murray names his Whisky Bible with the “Whisky” version, while Michael Jackson titles his book on world whiskeys with “whiskey.”

And remember, no matter what, someone will be upset. But as long as you’re the one on the Iron Throne, (that is, it’s your writing) it’s your rules. But beware the popular riots. No one, not the Lannisters or even the NYTimes, is invincible.

Fortunately, they sound the same.