Whiskey or whisky is an anglicisation of a Goidelic name (Irish: uisce beatha and Scottish Gaelic: uisge beatha) literally meaning “water of life”. Earlier anglicizations include usquebaugh, usquebea (1706) and iskie bae (1583).
- Whisky is Scottish English and usually refers to Scotch, although the US Whisky Rebellion was spelled that way.
- Whiskey is Hiberno-English and refers to pretty much everything else.
Nora Maynard offers this explanation: American and Irish liquor producers (and copy editors) tend to favour the spelling WHISKEY, while Canadian, Scottish, and Japanese producers (and copy editors) tend to favour WHISKY.
The New York Times tackled the problem by spelling everything the American way (with an E), regardless of the spirit’s country of origin. From Kentucky bourbon to Islay malts, everything was “whiskey” to The NYTimes. But in 2008, the venerable newspaper made a decisive changea fter receiving numerous complaints from some serious Scotch whisky drinkers, the paper re-tooled its approach to follow that of many specialized spirits publications, spelling each type of spirit according to the way favored by its country of origin. So, while American-produced varieties such as bourbon, rye, and Tennessee – as well as the Irish stuff – kept their previous NYTimes-styled “whiskey” spelling, the stuff from Scotland, Canada, and Japan now would be referred to as “whisky”.
Whiskey/whisky nmemonics (courtesy of Nora Maynard):
Here’s a quick way to remember how some of the world’s biggest producers spell their products:
- Countries that have “Es” in their names (UnitEd StatEs and IrEland) tend to spell it whiskEy (plural whiskeys)
Countries without “Es” in their names (Canada, Scotland, and Japan) spell it whisky (plural whiskies)