One of the most hotly debated topics in the world of Whisk(e)y is the spelling of the word itself. I have heard many excuses for the origins from religion to folklore, and I have heard far too many people get hot and bothered because someone has put an ‘e’ in Scotch Whisky. Seriously, it’s just a word. Anyway, I am here to shed some light on the situation and explain who uses what spelling and the origins of the ‘e’ in modern labelling. If you have had this debate, or know someone who has, please share this with them, as it’s one of the most fascinating stories in the world of aged spirits.
So here are the spellings and how they are used:
Whiskey is the only spelling used when talking about spirits distilled from grain in Ireland, matured in Ireland in oak for a minimum three years and with a minimum of 40% alcohol by volume. There are no rules regarding the number of distillations used. (Cooley is Irish Whiskey distilled only twice.)
Whisky is the only spelling used when talking about spirits distilled from grain in Scotland, matured in Scotland in oak for a minimum three years and with a minimum of 40% alcohol by volume. Again there are no rules regarding the number of distillations used. (Auchentoshan is Scotch Whisky distilled three times, as is Hazelburn. Springbank, Dailuaine, Benrinnes and Mortlach all have unorthodox variations on number of distillations too.)
Spirits from Japan, and Canada also exclusively use the spelling Whisky. Surprisingly, despite the New York Times dictionary listing Whiskey as the official spelling, American producers have the right to spell with or without an ‘e’. Just look at a bottle of Maker’s Mark next time you’re out. This seemingly links back to the lineage of the distillery founders. Bill Samuels is definitely of Scottish origin.
As for new distilling markets, they, like everyone else have the choice to use the ‘e’ or not. It is looking like the Swedes, Welsh, Germans, Australians, Kiwis and Indians will follow the Japanese and Canadian examples by omitting the ‘e’ and the English are indecisive. The St. George distillery omits the ‘e’ and the new Hicks & Healey brand seems to pop it on their labels.
It definitely is a baffling minefield of politics, lineage and lets face it unimportant marketing decisions, because the contents are infinitely more important than the labels. However, the Scottish and Irish spellings do have a story.
Here it is as far as I can tell:
This all starts back in the 1800’s. At the beginning of this period, Irish Whiskey was far and away the more popular of the two brands. They had Ambassadors in Queen Elizabeth and Peter the Great, equivalent to Lady Gaga and maybe Jay-Z these days when it comes to celebrity endorsements. Scotch Whisky was still very much a localised product, only just going into the Industrialisation of their distilleries and using alot of peat smoke, alienating a huge segment of the drinking public.
Dublin Whiskey on the other hand had wooed a larger market with it’s smooth easy drinking effects. Then up stepped Aeneas Coffey. Aeneas Coffey deserves a post all by himself and will get one in the near future, what we must acknowledge here is that in 1831 his revolutionary column still reinvigorated the Scotch Whisky industry, while it was shunned by the Irish. From 1850 onwards, the Scots blenders produced and marketed smoother, more appealing and more importantly consistent blended Scotch Whiskies which started to close the sales gap opened up by the Irish.
However, even then any spelling could be used by any brand, and the two were commonly used by both Scotch and Irish brands alike.
The big fall out came as the Irish lost their second biggest market. (The unfortunate demise of the Irish Whiskey Industry is yet another story worthy of yet another post.)
We are of course talking about Prohibition. During Prohibition, the Scots actually managed to increase exports. Of course, very little was sent to the USA directly, but exports to the Bahamas and Canada were massively increased. There was also the allowance of Scotch Whisky into the USA for medicinal purposes only. Laphroaig was famously allowed in without any papers.
The Irish on the other hand, refused to sell to the USA. I believe it was because of the integrity of their spirit, and the possibility of the mob cutting it and tarnishing their reputation. The Scots smelled blood.
With good ties to the importers, and of course the installations of Coffey stills in Scotland, we started to manufacture cheap, poor quality spirits and sent them over to the USA with Irish WHISKY labels on them, destroying their reputation whilst ensuring good quality Scotch Whisky was in good supply.
The only thing that the Irish could do was export real Irish Whiskey, with their famous spelling, to the USA to try to save some face. Unfortunately the damage was already done.
Since then the ‘e’ has been used in the spelling of Irish Whiskey to signify the quality of the product and it’s authentic origins compared to the cheap rubbish the Scots were manufacturing illicitly.
So there you have it, more on this subject to follow in the coming months. I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback. Comment below.