To mark Saint Patrick’s Day, we’re taking a look at a spelling problem with deep connections to Ireland: whether to write “whiskey” or “whisky.” So are these terms interchangeable? Or is there a difference? And what does this have to do with Ireland anyway? Let us explain!
The Origins of Whisky/Whiskey
Whisky (we will default to this spelling to save repeating ourselves too much) is a distilled alcoholic drink made from malted grain. It is widely associated with two countries: Scotland and Ireland. Both have a long history of distilling whisky, but the word itself comes from Ireland.
In particular, it comes from Old Irish term uisge beatha, meaning “water of life.” This is the Irish version of aqua vitae, which was the Latin word for distilled alcohol of any kind (not just whisky). Eventually, uisge beatha entered English and was anglicized to become “whisky” or “whiskey.”
Why two spellings, though? This may have started as a matter of regional preference. The story most people tell is that, during the 19th century, Irish distillers wanted to distinguish their product from their Scottish competitors.
As such, they started using the spelling “whiskey” for Irish whiskey. Scottish whisky, meanwhile, became known as Scotch whisky.
A Global Drink
We see this Irish–Scottish division in modern spellings around the world:
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The spelling “whiskey” is standard in Ireland and the US. This is partly because of the large number of Irish immigrants who set up stills over here.
“Whisky” is standard in most other countries, including Japan and India.
This is not a strict distinction, though. As such, while “whiskey” is standard in the US, you will also find distillers who call their products “whisky.” For instance, Maker’s Mark uses the spelling “whisky” to recognize the Scottish heritage of company founder Bill Samuel.
Whiskey or Whisky?
Some people say there are differences between “whiskey” and “whisky,” such as the distillation process or the type of still used. Most of the time, though, “whiskey” and “whisky” are just different spellings of the same word. And as such, they are often used interchangeably.
However, if you want to avoid upsetting drink geeks, remember:
Whiskey is the spelling associated with Ireland.
Whisky is associated with Scotland (especially “Scotch whisky”).
So the correct spelling depends on where your favored tipple comes from. And if you want a Saint Patrick’s Day drink that won’t cause spelling headaches, you can always try Guinness instead.