November 14, 2018
Never had a single letter divided the Western Hemisphere this much as the whisky vs. whiskey conundrum. This has been a topic of arguments among avid drinkers and newspaper writers alike. We are no stranger to slight spelling changes. Here in the US, we love humor, go to the theater, and maneuver analog devices; while people from across the pond love humour, go to the theatre, and manoeuvre analogue devices as much as we do. However, these differences never result in heated debates and pitchforks marches as much as the liquor dilemma in question.
Currently, WHISKY is being used by Scotland, Japan, and Canada while WHISKEY is preferred in Ireland and the United States. You may also notice that the countries that use “whisky” do not have “e” in their names while the ones who prefer “whiskey” do. But this is not the real reason and is completely accidental. To find the cause of such confusion, we need to look back at history.
During the 19th Century (and even before that), the spelling “whisky” is the norm, even for the Irish and American distillers. It is important to note also that during this time, Ireland was the most popular and biggest producer of whiskey, err, whisky in the world, supplying 70% of the global demand. The other 30% is shared by its backwater rivals Scotland and England.
The game changed when then UK Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone passed the Spirits Act in 1860. This decree permitted for the first time the grain whisky and single malts in the making of the blends.
The allowed the Scots to alter the whisky production landscape, as they were able to develop a style of blend that resembles and even rivals that of the Irish at a much lower cost. To top it off, the Scots turned out to be ingenious sellers, marketers, and packagers. Steadily, they were able to increase their share in the global market.
But the Irish distillers, especially the big four, Dublin, Belfast, Derry and Cork would have none of this. Working together, they wrote a book titled “Truths About Whisky.” This 19th Century version of a diss track condemned the use of grain whisky in blends, contending that this method violates the standard process and that the blends made this way should not be called “whisky” and should never be sold under that name, as diss tracks do.
To settle this heat figuratively fueled by alcohol, the 1908 Royal Commission on Whiskey and other Potable Spirits announced that blended whisky could still be called whisky and could be sold under that name, much to the Scots’ celebration, a revelry only rivalled by their delight when England lost to Croatia in this year’s FIFA World Cup.
This proved to be a major blow on the Irish’s pride. Many of the big distillers in the Emerald Isle began to spell their whiskey with an “e” to separate themselves from the Scots over the course the 19th Century.
Much with the rest of the world, the United States used to spell whisky without an “e.” When the Irish and Scots draw their lines, we sided with the earlier. American distillers adopted the Irish spelling, i.e. whiskey, as their product is more associated with better quality and higher price. Soon, the Scotch whisky caught up, obtained the lion’s share of the global market and became eminent whisky producer they are today. The Irish whiskey sales declined consequently, but we stuck to our guns and retained “e” in our whiskeys.
This is very evident on American brands of whiskeys today.
Currently, we use “whiskey” in most communications, as you may notice in our blogs. However, many US laws, being very formal, archaic, and historic in nature, use the “whisky” spelling, which is also quite formal, archaic, and historic in nature.
The whisky-whiskey dilemma might be a rather trivial afterthought, but it is significant in how the rivalries between countries and methods shape whisky/whiskey’s history. However, just like the rose, with any other name, the drink still tastes pure excellence.
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