What about the darned ‘e’? Does a letter make a difference? Truth is, it matters a heck of a lot if you are a diehard fan of grain distillates.
However you spell whisk(e)y, the word is a catch-all term for a type of spirit distilled from a mash of fermented grains. There are many sub-categories of whisk(e)y, such as Scotch, Irish, Canadian, bourbon, rye, Tennessee, and Japanese. Each of these types of whisk(e)y is controlled by laws that define production methods in the country of origin, which is how these spirits can taste so radically different. For example, bourbon whiskey must be aged in brand new heavily toasted American oak barrels, while Scottish malt whisky must be double distilled in a pot still and aged for 3 years in barrels that may be new or used, and come from anywhere.
But now to the ‘e’....
The ‘e’ is simply about origin and favoured naming traditions. Scotland, Canada, and Japan spell whisky with NO ‘e’ (plural is whiskies), and the United States of America, and Ireland insert the ‘e’ in whiskey (plural is whiskeys). This should be consistent, straightforward and infallible, but copy editor decisions or innocent ignorance has muddied the waters resulting in a raft of misspellings. The New York Times for example, used to spell all grain spirits the American way, whiskey, until the complaints were so frequent and vociferous (largely from Scotch lovers!) that they changed their copy editing policies. Sometimes other reasons prevail, as in Maker’s Mark, a famous Kentucky bourbon that chooses to use whisky on the label (not the usual American spelling with an ‘e’!) to pay homage the founding family’s Scottish roots.
Here’s a simple and memorable tip to help sort it all out: whisky producing countries like Canada, Scotland, and Japan, and India do NOT have an ‘e’ in their names, and use the spelling whisky. Ireland and the United States have the letter 'e' in their names, and spell whiskey with an 'e' also.
In the end it’s the taste that really matters, and to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day on March 17, here are some of my favourite spirits, starting with Irish whiskey of course. Single malts, blended, vatted, bourbon, rye or long-aged, the whisk(e)y world is infinitely diverse and exciting.