Whiskey vs. Whisky: What's the Difference?

Straight Up Cocktails and Spirits

Now that the days are getting shorter and chillier, it’s the perfect time to curl up with a good book and a nice warming glass of whisky - or should that be whiskey? Same thing, just different spelling, right? Well, that depends…

Before we get going, let’s define the liquor in general:
No matter how you spell it, whisky/ey is an umbrella term for a type of spirit distilled from a mash of fermented grains.

Now let’s look at some different types:
Within the broad category of whisky/ey are many sub-categories, including bourbon, rye, Tennessee, Scotch, Irish, and Canadian style whiskies. The manufacture of each of these types of whisky/ey is guided and regulated by the government of the spirit's country of origin. As a result, Canadian whisky, for example, is a whole different animal from Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey, and American-style whiskeys such as Tennessee, bourbon, and straight rye.

(Okay, so far, so good. Maybe at this point, you’d be happy to enjoy a glass of the stuff no matter how it’s spelled. But if you've ever wondered why the word often appears different ways in different contexts, read on...)

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Now things start to get tricky:
American and Irish liquor producers (and copy editors) tend to favor the spelling WHISKEY, while Canadian, Scottish, and Japanese producers (and copy editors) tend to favor (or should I say, favour) WHISKY.

The controversy:
So we have two things going on here: copy editing style and actual liquor style. The big question is: Are WHISKEY and WHISKY just two different spellings of the same word, or are they two slightly different words describing two separate groups of spirits? What do you do if you're a resident of Scotland writing about Irish whiskey or an American writing about Canadian whisky?

A solution:
Up until quite recently, The New York Times tackled the problem by spelling everything the American way (with an E), regardless of the spirit’s country of origin. From Kentucky bourbon to Islay malts, everything was “whiskey” to The NYTimes. But then, last February, the venerable newspaper made a decisive change.

After receiving a raft of complaints from some serious Scotch whisky drinkers, the paper re-tooled its approach to follow that of many specialized spirits publications, spelling each type of spirit according to the way favored by its country of origin. So, while American-produced varieties such as bourbon, rye, and Tennessee - as well as the Irish stuff - kept their previous NYTimes-styled "whiskey” spelling, the stuff from Scotland, Canada, and Japan now would be referred to as “whisky.” Makes a lot of sense, I think.

Whiskey/whisky nmemonics:
Here’s a quick way to remember how some of the world’s biggest producers spell their products:

  • Countries that have E’s in their names (UnitEd StatEs and IrEland) tend to spell it whiskEy (plural whiskeys)
  • Countries without E’s in their names (Canada, Scotland, and Japan) spell it whisky (plural whiskies)

Whew! Time for a drink.

Nora Maynard is a longtime home mixologist and an occasional instructor at NYC’s Astor Center. She is a contributor to The Business of Food: Encyclopedia of the Food and Drink Industries and is the recipient of the American Egg Board Fellowship in culinary writing at the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow. She previously covered food and drink in film at The Kitchn in her weekly column, The Celluloid Pantry.

Related: Cozy Whiskies for Chilly Fall Days: Smoky Single Malts

(Images: Nora Maynard)

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Drinks, Liquor, Straight Up Cocktails & Spirits

Nora Maynard is a freelance writer based in New York City. Her recent work has appeared in Salon, Drunken Boat, and The Millions. She recently completed her ninth marathon and her first novel, Burnt Hill Road. Nora wrote for The Kitchn from 2006 to 2011.