Whisky or whiskey: What’s the difference?

What’s the difference between whisky and whiskey? Drinks expert Leon Dalloway tells us what word you should use when by explaining the geography of the spirit.

The world of whisky is full of buzzwords and terminology, from Scotch and single malts, to bourbons and blends. But one point that causes much confusion is the fact that the drink is sometimes spelled ‘whisky’ and at other times ‘whiskey’. So what’s the difference? 

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Whiskey glasses

‘Whisky’ derives from the Gaelic term usquebaugh which translates as ‘water of life’. Uisge means water. Beatha means life. It’s a term used for many types of invigorating spirits over time, for example Eau de Vie. In modern usage, whisky is from Scotland and whiskey is from Ireland.

The difference comes from the translation of words from the Scottish and Irish Gaelic forms. In the late 1800s, Scottish whisky was also very poor quality therefore the Irish producers wanted to differentiate their product. These days though, both Scotch and Irish are two of the greatest spirits on the planet. 

Whisky glasses

The American spelling is whiskey most likely due to the large number of Irish immigrants setting up their stills throughout the US. Although the legal spelling is whisky, whiskey is generally preferred. Some distilleries do like to use the ‘Scottish’ version – see Maker’s Mark.

The Japanese spelling is whisky as it was two men’s study of Scotch whisky that inspired the Japanese whisky movement.

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More on whisk(e)y: 

Best whisky – top 10 buys
Best bourbon – top 10 buys 
10 ways to cook with whisky