Podcast Episode: Whisky or Whiskey? The Great Spelling Controversy
Why do some bottles say whiskey and others say whisky? Learn the history and discover which one is correct.
Listen to the Episode
I've heard people defending why you should spell whisk[e]y with an "e" and without an "e" - but I haven't heard anyone give me a good explanation of where these two spellings originated or why each has found its own hooks in certain countries.
So in this episode, I'll take a look at the origins of the word and see if we can determine the best way to navigate this spelling minefield.
- How the word smoky got an "e"
- Whisky's evolution from uisce beatha
- The first use of the word in writing
- The Ulster Scots and beginnings of the "e"
- The Spirits Act of 1860
- The Big Four make a statement in "The Truths About Whisky"
- 1908 Royal Commission on Whiskey and Potable Spirits
- The consolidation of Whiskey
- United States awkward relationship to the word
- Mexico joins in
- Bushmills gets the "e" question
Listen to the full episode with the player above or find it on your favorite podcast app under "Whiskey Lore." The full transcript is available on the tab above.
It was April 2019 and I had just flown in on the redeye into Dublin. It was a pretty normal traveling experience for me, I went through customs, exchanged some money, and headed straight to the rental car office to pick up my vehicle.
As a world traveler, driving in new countries never really bothered me much, but on this particular day, I was about to embark - jet lagged and all - on my first left side of the road driving experience.
The first challenge was trying to figure out why I didn’t see the steering wheel when I first opened the door - duh! The rearview mirror was on an awkward side. I kept reaching for the steering column to shift because I wasn’t used to the shifter being on the left by my thigh. After a couple of laughable moments clicking on the windshield wipers by mistake, I was off.
For this dyslexic kid from America, I thought I did pretty well. I navigated the roundabouts, dealt with single track roads, and only had two really mind numbing moments of stupidity when I relied too much on instinct and found myself on the wrong side of the road with a car coming at me.
These days, when it comes to visiting or living in a new area or country, there is so much more to deal with than just new traffic laws. There are customs, cultures, language issues, and quirky little mannerisms that can quickly make you feel overwhelmed or out of place.
Things you take for granted in one location, become faux pas in another. Some are simple and easy to overcome, but in other cases, it can be cause for some real social anxiety. And I got a face full of this as a kid.
Back in the mid-1970s in my home state of Michigan, there was a real sense that the country would be diving head first into the Metric System. I remember in elementary school being taught metrics side by side with the old imperial measurements of miles, pounds, and gallons. After my family moved from the midwest to North Carolina in the southeastern United State, no one really seemed to care about the metric system. In fact, it was only that 2 litre of what we Michigander’s call pop that reminded me there was such a thing.
Okay, hands up, how many people cringed when I referred to a carbonated beverage as "pop?" Well, it actually makes me cringe too. I never call it that. I usually call it soda. But in the area of North Carolina I moved to, it was referred to as "Coke." No, not because it was Coca-Cola, but because everything carbonated in a two liter bottle (spelled er) was Coke. Sprite was Coke, RC was Coke, Pepsi was Coke. I know, it was like cats sleeping with dogs. Totally baffling.
Of course, those southern accents took a bit of time to get used to. So did having salt shakers on the tables in the lunchroom. I’d never seen someone salt down their desert before!
Then there was the issue I was having with spelling things. Still in grammar school, I was getting marked off for spelling on words like dialogue, catalogue (with a "ue" at the end), traveller, cancelled (with 2 ll instead of 1), neighbours (added "u"), centre (with an re instead of er). It was enough to drive you mad, eh? And to be honest, I didn't no idea why my teacher was marking those as incorrect! It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered the Canadian influence on my spelling.
Then when traveling to the UK (travelling with 2 ll's) I found I had to learn a whole new form of English. Lorries are trucks, Leu is the bathroom, chemist is the druggist, a lift is an elevator, the boot is the trunk of the car, petrol is what you put in your tank instead of gasoline, a flat is an apartment, mobile is your phone, crisps are chips, and chips are fries, and I’m still kinda freaked out by the name digestables.
But there were some terms I absolutely prefered to the American version.. I think aluminium and advertisement sound a heck of a lot better than aluminum and advertisement.
Regionalisms are all around us. And having moved to different parts of the United States over my life, I have found my vernacular out of place many times.
In Michigan, you have a pop on the davenport, a davenport is a couch. If you're on the sun porch you might be looking at the crick running by your house. And that thing called a ruff is not something your dog says, but something that sits on top of your house to keep the rain from coming in.
In Boston, you have a grinder, not a hoagie or sub sandwich - or you could be eating an Italian (and don’t worry you won’t go to jail for that) - and if you're at the park you may have to go to the necessary afterwards - rather than the commode as they say in the south.
In Philly, I was invited into someone's parlor, and no this was not in the 19th century.
Also in the South, but mainly Texas, preparing yourself for an event means you are fixin’ to do something. And howdy becomes a very normal way of welcoming someone.
I quickly learned that yankee is just something you have to put up with being called, even if you're a midwesterner. Anything in that northerly direction is fair game for being branded a yankee in the south.
When we moved to the South, I wanted to gag when I heard people saying caramel, theater, or vehicle. I've heard of vehicular manslaughter, but in any other form pronouncing that "h" gives me a queasy feeling. As for caramel, I have finally converted from my Michigander pronunciation of caramel to the more pretentious caramel. There is an "a" and an "e" in there, I get it - say it like it is spelled. I'll give you that one.
And then there are those things that seem like regional differences, until you do a little investigation.
When I grew up in Asheville, NC, I lived not far from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Do you spell smoky with an ‘e’ or without an ‘e?’
Well, I used to work off a road in Asheville called Smokey Park Highway. Smokey is spelled with an ‘e.’ - or wait? Is it? I pass one street sign planted by the county and there is an ‘e’ and then I pass another and there isn’t an ‘e?’
I had to dig into that one. Well, the road was named after a bridge that was named the Smoky Park Bridge by the state back in 1950. The bridge was named in honor of the national park. So obviously the spelling should be without an ‘e.’ So how did the county, many of the local businesses, and even Google Maps get this so wrong?
The answer goes back to the early 1940s. The federal government was starting its first fire prevention campaigns and had originally been loaned Disney characters from the recently premiered Bambi movie. When that license ended, the U.S. Forest Service moved to using a bear and named him “Smokey” (with an ‘e’) after a fallen New York firefighter named “Smoky” Joe Martin (without an ‘e’). The forest service added the ‘e’ to separate it from its more hazardous cousin, the adjective smoky (without an ‘e’).
Since then it has become a nickname. Smokey Robinson is the most famous example and Smokey and the Bandit helped firm up the nickname “smokey” for the police. But it has also created confusion in how the real word is spelled, and now highways, businesses, and map services are perpetuating the issue.
But as an insider who grew up in the community, the thing I find most amusing is that while people in Asheville don’t seem to pay attention to the fact that the spelling of smoky is very erratic, just be aware that if you forget the extra “e” in Asheville, you are in for an earful.
So you know where this whole “e” controversy is leading, don’t you? Yup, that pesky little vowel and its importance or unimportance to a bottle of whisky. How the heck did we end up with two spellings? Is the juice inside the bottle any different, or is it just a battle between two old foes in the whisky world? And how should we handle the difference? It’s time to find the answer to the question, to “e” or not to “e.”
If you've learned anything from this season, it is that when it comes to whisky origins, speculation happens. So we usually have to plow through some unsubstantiated theories in order to get to a few fragments of truth.
One such theory is that the two spellings “whisky” and “whiskey” were all part of a linguistic evolution in two neighboring countries. And this theory is built upon the different spellings of the words whisky evolved from.
In Irish Gaelic, uisce beatha means “water of life” and the first word is spelled u-i-s-c-e. In Scots Gaelic, a very similar language, uisge beatha is also the word for “water of life” but the first word is spelled with a “g” instead of a “c.” The idea being that if the word was spelled differently then, maybe it just evolved differently when it became whisky.
Well, just like tracking the word bourbon, it is virtually impossible to nail down the exact first use of the word. But uisge beatha was slowly finding a variety of different spellings as it evolved. And when whisky started appearing in print the spelling was all over the place.
In fact, the first written record of the word whisky came from what was called a broadsheet ballad (little one sided pieces of paper that contained news or ballads, popular in the 16th through 18th centuries) and it didn’t spell it either way.
This particular broadsheet ballad A Dialogue between his Grace the Duke of Argyle and the Earl of Mar was released in 1715, after a critical battle during Lord Mar’s War, also known as the Scottish Jacobite rising of 1715. This was a time period when the Stuart’s were trying to regain control of the crown’s of England, Scotland, and Ireland.
In the ballad, Jacobite 'Bobbing' John Erskine, the Earl of Mar speaks to his opposite in battle, the Duke of Argyle and says "We shall know how it goes, Sir, Whiskie shall put our brains in rage, And snuff shall prime our nose."
Well, apparently the whiskie put their brains in a stupor because Lord Mar’s superior forces fought to a stalemate - thus losing the Stuart kings their return trip to the throne.
An inauspicious beginning for the word whisky, and one that confuses the case for whisky without an “e” in Scotland, because the author of the ballad ended it with an “ie.”
So obviously there were no hard or fast rules for spelling. It wouldn’t be until Dr. Samuel Johnston’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755 edition) that a spelling of whisky would be offered up, but not in a flattering way.
In the definition for usquebaugh he mentions that “…by corruption, in Scottish they call it whisky.” - and he spells it without an “e.”
Well, with this being the first somewhat official spelling on record, it seemed that whisky was well on its way to being spelled w-h-i-s-k-y across the English speaking world - until some distillers in the Irish province of Ulster chimed in.
Ulster was an interesting case. In the 16th century it was one of four Irish provinces and it was the stronghold of Irish Gaelic Nobility. This made it a target for King James I of England, who decided to flood the area with protestant settlers from the north of England and the lowlands of Scotland. The idea was to overrun and push the Irish nobility off of their lands.
Sometimes referred to as the Ulster Scots, you may know them better by the ame, the Scots-Irish.
For reasons unknown, certain distillers in this area, which today encompassas Northern Ireland began spelling whiskey with an “e.” And it just so happened, it would be these same Scots-Irish that would end up crossing the Atlantic in droves over two centuries, likely taking their whiskey with an “e” to the New World.
But a funny thing happened to this whiskey with an “e.” It slowly faded from Ulster during the later part of the 18th and early years of the 19th centuries. Only to reemerge in another part of the country, when an Irishman’s invention became a credible threat to some big city Irish distillers.
The Industrial Revolution brought on great changes in not only production of products, but also societal changes. People were moving from the country into cities and everything was being done at a faster pace. There was also a growing consumerism. So it was no wonder that distillers from France, Germany, Ireland, and Scotland were racing to find a way to mass produce their alcohol.
The winner of the mass production sweepstakes was an Irishman named Aeneas Coffey. His continuously running column still revolutionized the distilling process and the machine’s efficiency would ultimately create a worldwide whisky boom.
Scotland would be one of the biggest beneficiaries. With legal distilling at an all time high after the lowering of excise taxes in 1823, distillers like Dewar, Walker, and Usher would begin vatting this quickly distilled malt whisky with their higher quality pot still single malts.
And when the Spirits Act of 1860 opened the door to blending grain whisky with malt whisky - lower price blends began flooding the market. And because scotch blends were less harsh than their single malt cousins, they competed nicely against the mellow triple distilled whiskies coming out of Ireland.
Seeing their profits draining away, due to these low cost usurpers, Dublin’s Big Four whisky distillers were desperate for a solution. So in 1879, John Jameson, William Jameson, John Power, and George Row wrote a book called "The Truths About Whisky" (spelled without an 'e') laying out all of the reasons Irish whisky was superior to these upstart blended whiskies. In fact, the book went as far as to call into question whether these blends should even be called whisky.
Now, nowhere in the book was it suggested that a change in the spelling of whisky was at hand, but that seems to have been the result.
Suddenly City or Parliament whiskeys from Dublin such as Jameson and Powers adopted the “e” while what was being termed as Country whisky (Midlton and Paddy) stayed with the traditional spelling - the only exceptions being Bushmills and Mitchell's in the north.
The debate over what is whisky would finally be settled in 1908 by The Royal Commission on Whiskey and Potable Spirits, who spell whiskey with an “e,” even when referring to Scotch whisky. Their judgment was that blended whiskey or anything that greatly resembled whiskey and used a similar process, was whiskey - thus ending the Big Four Irish distiller’s hopes of validation for their product’s quality.
So, how did Ireland finally end up universally adopting the “e?” Oddly, it comes down to misfortune. Prohibition, a lost reputation, and two wars to put a long lasting dent in demand for Irish Whiskey. This led to a series of mergers and acquisitions and by the 1970s there were only two distilling companies in all of Ireland, Old Bushmills and New Midletons. And both were using the “e.” So it was likely less of a grand scheme and more just a byproduct of attrition.
Over the last few years, there has been a major resurgence in the production of Irish whiskey. Where once there were only two distillers, there are now 25 and growing. And while most new Irish distilleries are opting to use the “e” - others like McConnell's are going without the “e.” And some older brands like Paddy, Midleton and Cork are releasing bottles without the “e.”
But now we are in an era of globalization. Whisky is not an exclusive property of Ireland or Scotland. So how has the name evolved in the rest of the world?
Well, the United States is an interesting case. It is assumed by most of the world that we spell whiskey with an “e.” But our relationship with that letter is much more complicated. Check out a bottle of Old Forester, Maker’s Mark or George Dickel and you’ll see it spelled without an “e.” Alexander Hamilton referred to whisky without an “e” in his army rations reports. And Noah Webster, in his 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, sought to simplify words like colour, flavour, and whiskey by dropping unnecessary letters. The so-called father of American English was suggesting we American’s spell whisky without an “e.”
But while the mass of people ignored old Noah, the government didn’t. In 1938 the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau set down the rules for distilled spirits and they put down specific definitions for whisky, spelling it without an 'e' - even when specifically referencing bourbon, rye, wheat, and malt whisky.
But there is no denying, the “e” is still used predominantly in American whiskey.
Canada on the other hand has mandated, as has Scotland, the spelling of whisky without an “e.” In Japan, it is not the law, but they also avoid the “e” as do France, Germany, Spain, and most other countries across the globe.
Only Mexico seems to be joining the Irish and American’s in utilizing the “e.”
So I guess when it comes to using the “e” or not using the “e” outside of Scotland and Canada, you can do as you please. All settled, right?
Well, not so fast. What about the plural spelling?
I never would have thought about this in a million years until I started writing a book on Kentucky bourbon and had to reference the plural form of scotch whisky. Whisky without an “e” in the plural ends “ies” and whiskey with an “e” ends in a plural “eys.” When researching this use, I discovered I wasn’t the only one grappling with the question.
Apparently, in 2008, Bushmills received a letter from liquidirish.com asking them why they referred to themselves as "the Daddy of Whiskies" spelled “ies” like a no "e" whisky - this was Irish whiskey with an “e” so he was wanting clarification on why they chose this seemingly incorrect spelling. I chucked at Bushmills sort of rambling yet solid reasoning. As the first licensed distillery in the world, they felt they were the daddy of all of the whiskies in the world, in which case, they would need to spell it by the old school non "e" version to be universal. Nice save!
Having dealt with regionalisms as a kid and facing ridicule for my perceived misuse of several words, I have become highly sensitive to who uses what. And so for me, when it came time to choose the name for this podcast, I didn't take the choice of using the e lightly. There was much deliberation. Personally, just like with centre (spelled re), and dialogue (spelled with ue) I personally prefer to spell whisky without the "e" and thus the plural whiskies. And any time I write about any product that uses that spelling I do my absolute level best (another British term), to utilize that spelling.
But even though the US government seems fit to stick with whisky in it’s non-e format, whiskey with an “e” has become associated with the United States, so it helps me to be identifiable with the country I come from. That said, I still second guess myself everytime I see it. Hopefully my neighbors (without a “u”) appreciate it and my friends donning kilts forgive me for it. And just to show how much I appreciate both sides - if you go to whiskey-lore.com and you spell it without the “e” you will still make it to my website.
I know there will always be arguments. A good Scot will always question your use of an “e” - just like they will question your driving on the incorrect side of the road. But as for the road discussion, I usually disarm that quickly by telling them I really like driving on the left and if the world shifted to it, I would have no problem at all. Although I wouldn’t hold my breath on that happening.
As for my writing, if the brand uses an “e” I use an “e.” If the brand doesn’t use an “e” neither do I. And in general discussions about American whiskey or Irish whiskey, I keep the “e” and for all others I drop it. Simple.
Basically what I am saying is, I’ll do my best to follow your conventions. But in reality, to me, it is like a cultural exchange. A chance to enjoy the different ways our cultures have evolved and these simple little points that bring out our passions. And honestly, a scotch somehow tastes better without the "e" and I get a warm feeling of home when I see the 'e.'
And in reality, no matter how you spell it, we all say it the same, and that is good enough for me.
I’m Drew Hannush and this is Whiskey Lore.
Whiskey Lore is a production of Travel Fuels Life
Research, stories and production by Drew Hannush
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