What’s the Difference: Whiskey versus Whisky?


I don’t know about you, but I find variations on regional names to be fascinating. Why do we call them sprinkles here, jimmies there? Why do we call it soda here, pop there?

But today, we’re going to discuss the question of a difference that is subtle but amazingly widespread: what’s the difference between whisky and whiskey?

No, this is not a riddle, and it’s not a question of the intelligence of your autocorrect. Both terms are valid spellings of a type of distilled liquor. But why two spellings? And what is the stuff, exactly? Let’s explore.

What is whiskey/y?

Regardless of the e or lack thereof, the substance in question is constant: a sort of spirit made from fermented grains, which are turned into a mash and then distilled. Many types of whisk(e)y are aged, with the exception being corn-based variations, which do not always need to be aged.

Within this very general definition reside many different types of liquor which can be called whiskey or whisky. Stateside, famous variations include bourbon or rye; internationally, you might hear specific locations assigned to the liquid, including but not limited to Canadian, Irish, and Scotch.

Why are there two spellings, anyway?

There are different schools of thought on the subject. One is that it’s simply a regional variation, not unlike how we say “color” in the US but “colour” in the UK. Another thought is that it refers to where the whisk(e)y is from, so that if you spell it “whiskey” then you already have an idea of the limited regions from which it came. In this way, it’s not unlike the fact that only sparkling wine from a specific region can legally be called Champagne.


The issue gets even trickier

In the US, the usage has not always been consistent. For much of US history, American writers used both spellings interchangeably, until style guides dictated which term to use.

As a testament to the changing times, the New York Times recently made a change in how they refer to the spirit. While they once referred to all varieties, lineage aside, as whiskey, a barrage of letters from whisky enthusiasts forced a change. The reaction was so strong that they now make all efforts possible to refer to the spirit appropriately to where it hails from. While it certainly shows respect, it must be quite a pain to spell check articles!


When do you call it “whiskey” versus “whisky”?

At one point, I had heard that the short explanation is that it’s “whiskey” in the United States, “whisky” everywhere else. But it turns out, it’s not quite as simple.

Because while it’s a good reminder that most countries other than the U.S. refer to the stuff as “whisky”, this is not always the case. Ireland, for instance, refers to it as “whiskey” too.

Different types of whiskey and whisky

Here’s a guide to what defines popular types of whisk(e)y throughout the world, and what they are called in each place.

American whiskey: It’s definitively “whiskey” in the USA, but that can refer to a variety of different types of alcohol. They include:

  • Bourbon whiskey: made with a primarily corn-based mash
  • Malt whiskey: made primarily with malted barley
  • Rye whiskey: made primarily with a mash of rye
  • Wheat whiskey: made primarily with a mash of wheat

Australian whisky: While perhaps not the most famous of whiskies, the Australian varieties have garnered the praise of such pinkies-out institutions as the World Whiskies Awards.

Canadian whisky: In Canada, the spirits need to meet certain standards: by law, their whiskies must be produced and aged in Canada, distilled from a fermented mash of grain, aged in wood barrels not less than three years.

Danish whisky: Denmark is fairly new to the whisky scene, only starting production in the 1970s, but has come into its own. Some producers even use creative techniques like distilling on ice.

English Whisky: While Scotland and Ireland are famous for their spirited variations of whisk(e)y, several distilleries in England produce whisky. After a long hiatus (perhaps because Ireland and Scotland were getting all the glory?), England began producing the spirits anew in 2003.

German whisky (or whiskey): German varieties of the spirit are relatively new, and follow the lead of the styles produced in both Scotland (distilled at least twice) and the USA (using a variety of grains). Perhaps for this reason, “whiskey” and “whisky” are both used in the Teutonic banter.

Indian whisky: Fun fact: India consumes almost as much whisky as the rest of the world put together–more than North America and Europe put together. Typically, the mix is more like what would be called rum elsewhere, with fermented molasses being a key ingredient.

Irish whiskey: In Ireland, whiskey is typically distilled not once, not twice, but thrice, which makes it extra smooth.  By law, Irish whiskey must be produced in Ireland and aged in wooden casks for a period of no less than three years, although in practice it is usually three or four times that period.

Japanese whisky: While relatively new to the scene, Japanese whiskies have gained a reputation for quality, typically following the Scotch model. Esteemed critic Jim Murray even named a Japanese single malt whisky from the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery in as the “best in the world”.

Scotch whisky: Scotch whiskies are among the more famous: tourism related to whisky in Scotland totals millions of pounds each year, revenue generated from the 40-plus distilleries open to the public, many of which offer tours and gift shops. They are distilled at least twice, although sometimes many more times. Strict Scotch Whisky Regulations require that anything bearing the name “Scotch” be made in Scotland.


How to remember it?

There is a helpful way to remember when you do and don’t use an “e” in the spelling: in general, countries that have an “e” in the spelling (United States; Ireland) spell it “whiskey”.

In general, countries that do not have an “e” in the spelling (Canada, Scotland) spell it “whisky”.

There are one or two exceptions to this rule, but in general, if you follow that guideline, you won’t offend any whisk(e)y enthusiasts.

And not to confuse you, but furthermore, in plural it is as follows:

whiskey = whiskeys

whisky = whiskies

It’s a fascinating cultural phenomenon to explore the difference between e versus no e in the word whisk(e)y. But far more enjoyable? Sampling an international variation of the spirited spirit that cannot be contained by just one name. Cheers!

What is your favorite whisk(e)y?

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