What’s in your glass — Whisky or Whiskey?

The right way to understand the difference between whisky and whiskey lies in its history and how one makes the spirit.

Eshita Bhargava December 18, 2021 10:25:11 IST
What’s in your glass — Whisky or Whiskey?

Whiskey drinkers who take the spirit seriously are not messing around. Just like wine, whiskey connoisseurs take great pride in knowing what goes into their drams. Even for beginners who are starting to experiment, whisky is one of the most loved options. 

The world of whisky is full of buzzwords – from Scotch and single malts to bourbons and blends. But one thing that creates confusion is the fact that the spirit is sometimes spelled 'whisky,' and at other times 'whiskey.' While the difference between the two (whiskey and whisky) appears to be obvious to some, it is one of the most Googled questions. 

The right way to understand the difference between whisky and whiskey lies in its history, and how one makes the spirit. “The word ‘whisky’ is derived from the Gaelic term 'usquebaugh,' which means 'water of life.' It is spelled as ‘whiskey’ with an additional ‘e’ in America and Ireland, and ‘whisky’ in the rest of the world, including Scotland and Japan. This spelling difference arose in the 1800s because of the Irish producers wanting to differentiate their product from their Scottish counterparts,” Rohan Jelkie, Programme Manager, The Blend, Beam Suntory India, explains.

He adds,

“American whisky, too, is spelled the same way because a lot of America’s early settlers were Irish immigrants. Hence Bourbon whiskey also ended up being spelled with an 'e.' However, this difference in the way the dram is spelled has nothing to do with its style, character, or its flavour profile, which is largely dependent on its country of origin, climatic and geographic differences, ingredients used, and the fermentation and maturation processes."

To simplify it further, we asked Shantanu Sengupta, Diageo Brand Ambassador, and Afzal Kaba, Diageo Brand Ambassador, to answer some of the most asked questions:

What is the origin of Whiskey & Whisky? 

‘Whisky’ or ‘Whiskey’ is the same product with different nomenclature. The word ‘whisky’ came from the ancient Gaelic word ‘uisce beatha’ or 'uisge beatha,' meaning 'water of life.' The Irish were the ones to first distill whisky. Irish whiskey was originally spelled without the letter 'e.' Ireland was ruling the European whisky market for many centuries. In the 19th century, Scotch whisky started gaining more popularity due to the outstanding marketing and packaging by the Scottish distillers. Scotch whisky makers also started blending malt and grain whiskies, which the Irish whisky makers protested to, saying "You cannot call a blend of malt and grain as whisky."

However, when the Royal Commission of whisky approved the fact that whisky can be a blend of malt and grain whiskies, some of the leading Irish distillers changed the spelling to whiskey to differentiate their whisky from Scotch, and became very popular. Gradually, most Irish distilleries spelled their whisky with an E. The American whiskey industry was developed mainly by the Scot-Irish immigrants, and America chose to spell whisky with an E like the Irish. Though few very popular American whisky brands spell whisky without the 'e' as a tribute to the Scot immigrants.

Whats in your glass  Whisky or Whiskey

How do the notes differ? 

Like I mentioned, whisky and whiskey are 2 different spellings for the same product. The difference in notes thus does not depend on the spelling; it depends on the type of whisky, the distillery, the manufacturing technique, the maturation process, and a host of other factors.

Can you highlight the different methods of storing for both – Whisky and Whiskey?

No difference in the method of storing as they are the same product. Whisky or whiskey must be stored in a cool and dry place, never in the refrigerator unless specifically mentioned. Must never be stored in the kitchen as they may develop aromas from the spices used for cooking. Once the bottle is half empty, the remaining whisky must not be stored for long as the oxygen in the bottle tends to reduce the flavours gradually.

Can you throw some light on the process of making a whiskey vs a whisky?  

Scotch whisky is the most popular type of whisky. But since whisky making had roots in Ireland followed by Scotland, America too started making it, and now, the rest of the world is following the trend. Two spellings are used for whisky/whiskey. As whiskey is the popular spelling used in America as well as Ireland, whisky without an E is used in the rest of the world. The outline of the process is same, but some technical difference makes their flavours apart.  

The process of making Whisky is as explained below. However, it may look simple, but has layers of complication at every stage. 

Ingredients – fermentation – distillation – ageing – addition of water – bottling.

Scotch is made using grains. Malted Barley is a very important grain in Scotland as it is needed for enzymes. So depending on the type of whisky, a quantity of barley will be decided.  

The ratio will be according to the type of whisky. Beer is made using grains with water to turn starch into sugar. (In this process there is a layer). Barley as one of the gains is germinated and roasted process called malting. And in this stage peat is used by many malt masters (very few Irish makers use peat) which gives barley smoke. Barley is mixed with other grains and crushed and mixed with water. This liquid is then fermented using yeast. Once the fermentation is done, the liquid can be called beer. The alcoholic strength of this beer can be around 7-10%. Alcohol is extracted from the beer using distillation. With alcohol-water also makes the way through and hence with first distillation alcoholic strength is not very high. With second distillation the 55-65% alcohol is achieved (Irish distillers may even do 3rd distillation which helps them achieve lighter spirits). This alcoholic liquid is called spirit and is aged in Oak barrel (type of wood that is pores. Let’s air in and doesn’t leak) for a minimum of three years. Once 3 years are over liquid is called whisky. But it is up to the distiller to bottle it or age it further. Whisky in the cask is at 55-65 percent but while bottling it water is added and alcoholic strength is reduced to bottling strength which in many cases is 40-48.2 percent. 

Scotch and Irish whisky are divided into a few types: 

Single Malt Whisky – made only using Malted barley and in one distillery. 

Blended Malt Whisky – a mix of a variety of single malts

Grain Whisky – made from a mix of grains which includes barley. (Distillation equipment is different) 

Blended Scotch or Irish – a mix of a variety of single malts and grain whisky. 

Whats in your glass  Whisky or Whiskey

American Whiskey is divided into a few types: 

Bourbon Whiskey – is made using 51 percent corn and 49 percent mix of grains. Tennessee whiskey is the same as bourbon, but it goes through filtration using maple charcoal 

Rye Whiskey – is made using 51 percent rye and 49 percent mix of grains.

Corn Whiskey –is made using 100 percent corn.

As this mix of grains is a base for whiskeys, every whiskey maker plays with the ratio of grains to achieve differences from competing brands.

What type of liquid comes under a whisky and a whiskey?   

As whisky/whiskeys are aged in oak barrels it takes the sweetness from it. But this sweetness has layers. To describe this layer, we will use easy terminology from fruit, herbs, and spice chart. These flavours are a combination of grain, process, aging, and sometimes, water. 

Tip to Remember:

The whiskies that usually originate from Ireland and in the US, are spelled as “whiskey,” while the rest of the world spells it as without the ‘e.’ One good tool to remember is that countries with an “e” in the name (United States, Ireland) use the “e” while countries without an “e” (Scotland, Japan, India, Canada) do not.


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