The question that very often pops up at bars, whisky shops and at whisky nights with friends. Who is right? The Irish and the Americans or the Scots and the Japanese?
It is common knowledge to people working in the drinks industry that whiskies from the US and Ireland display the word 'whiskey' on their labels. Whiskies from elsewhere proudly display the word 'whisky' on theirs.
The origins of the word whisky
In Ireland the distilled alcohol produced from a fermented mash of grains or cereals was called uisce beatha and the first usage of those two words is recorded as far back as 1404. In Scotland 'uisge beatha' is mentioned for the first time in 1494. According to those who know about grammar and etymology: 'the words water, whisky and vodka flow from a common source, the Indo-European root wed- which means 'water' or 'wet'. Uisce comes from the Indo-European suffixed form ud-skio'.
Are you following? So far we know that the word whisky has its origins in Irish and Scots Gaelic. Uisge beatha was eventually shortened to 'usge' (pronounced 'uiskie') and by 1736, at least, the word 'whisky' was in use in legal documents referring to distilled alcohol made from grains in Ireland and Scotland.
The celebrated lexicographer and language reformer Noah Webster (to some he was the 'father' of American spelling) spelled the word 'whisky' without the letter 'e' in his 1828 dictionary. So, where does the difference in spelling come from?
The Coffey still
In the 19th century Irish whisky (spelled back then without the 'e') was considered superior to the one produced in Scotland. It was made from a mash that contained malted and un-malted barley and was distilled in copper pot stills. It was so popular that even during the Great Famine stocks of whisky increased without problems. Since at least 1823 Dublin was known as an important distilling centre, it had some of the biggest distilleries in the world. Dublin's whisky gained such fame that even Distillers Company Limited (largest distilling group in Scotland) claimed in 1878 that Dublin's whisky could be sold 'for a 25% premium over other Irish whiskies and that it had demand five times that of Scotch...'
The Dublin distilleries with their superior (at the time) equipment and techniques saw with disdain the adoption of the new Coffey stills by their neighbours in Ireland. They considered the alcohol produced by those new stills 'foul', 'tasteless' and neutral in flavour.
Of course, Dublin distillers considered column stills efficient distilling devices, however, the alcohol they produced was simply not whisky in their opinion. Just how bad was the liquid produced by those new devices? In his book 'Malt Whisky' (1997) whisky guru Charles Maclean describes it as 'of dubious quality'. He also claims that 'It was often flavoured with fruit essences and turpentine and coloured with burnt sugar'. In the same book, he mentions that 'potent whiskies with lots of peat were being used to mask the rough character of grain alcohol produced in columns'. We can see that the rising sales of grain spirit worried Dublin distillers who did not want to see it being mistaken for superior Dublin whisky. They had to differentiate their product from the 'horrid' alcohol being produced by column stills.
'Truths about whisky'
Dublin distillers published a pamphlet called 'Truths About Whisky' (the word 'whisky' was spelled without the 'e') in 1878. They denounced the spirit produced in column stills as 'good, bad or indifferent'; they also said: '... but it cannot be whisky, and it ought not to be sold under that name'. The pamphlet did little to set the record straight and many distillers in Ireland decided to differentiate their spirit from the inferior grain alcohol by calling it 'whiskey' (with an 'e'). Irish distillers weren't consistent, some used the 'e' others didn't.
At the turn of the century the fortunes of Irish whiskey changed. The Irish war of Independence, civil war and a trade embargo imposed on it by Britain severely affected sales of the spirit abroad. Its biggest market, the US, prohibited the consumption of alcohol.
As the 19th century went on, faster cargo ships became more common, the distance between the Americas and Europe was 'shortened'. Avid botanist from Britain decided to take home new American vines to collect from the 1850's and onwards. The vines brought the phylloxera parasite which quickly decimated the few vineyards available in Britain and soon it reached French soil where it caused the biggest vine devastation in history. When the cognac region in France was destroyed brandy stocks dwindled. It was the opportunity for blended Scotch whisky to shine.
The adoption of blended whisky by the upper classes helped spread its popularity. Blenders started to use more and more Speyside whisky to create smooth and delicate flavours that pleased the changing tastes of Victorian era palates. It became the best selling spirit in the world until The Great War in Europe and the Prohibition in the US stopped its growth.
The right spelling?
I wasn't until the 1960's that newspapers all over the world issued guidelines to their reporters on how to spell certain words. The Webster dictionary became the bible of spelling for American journalists and major American newspapers kept the 'e' in the word 'whiskey'. The word 'whisky' was left alone in Britain and the usage spread. Today, as a general rule, if a country contains the letter 'e' in its spelling the word 'whiskey' is used. It the country's name does not, then the word 'whisky' is used.