Whiskey v. Whisky: What’s the Difference?

Whiskey v. Whisky: What’s the Difference?
March 13, 2017 Becky Ruisseau
In Whiskey
Bottles of Rebecca Creek & Texas Ranger Whiskey

Before we dive deep into this one, let’s all pour ourselves a nice glass of whiskey. Or should we be pouring a glass of whisky? Aren’t they the same thing? Cozy up your to glass and let Rebecca Creek explain the difference in this age-old misunderstanding.

In truth, the defining difference was originally, and literally, lost in translation. While they may seem the same, minus an “e,” whiskey and whisky have different origins and meanings that spirit aficionados are quick to point out, like in the case of New York Times writer Eric Asimov’s column on Speyside single malts.

Whiskey, in its original translation from Gaelic, means “Water For Life,” though the difference in spelling arose from its Scottish and Irish Gaelic translations. While it may have seemed like a simple error in translation, once the difference was set it developed into a phenomenon unto itself.

The differentiating factors between whiskey and whisky have evolved into a cultural dichotomy that connoisseurs are quick to point out. Traditionally, the Scottish use peat to dry malted barley when producing their whisky. The type of peat and the time it takes barley to dry in the smoke gives Scottish whisky its traditional full flavor and smokiness. In contrast, Irish and American whiskey manufacturers use wood or other fuel, making the spirit less smoky and lighter.

whiskey barrel in distillery

Coupled with this difference, Irish manufacturers originally used an assortment of grains given the high cost of barley. Likewise, American settlers used whatever was available for the mash since they had to adapt to new climates and soil conditions.

These early differences have evolved to the point that American whiskey bears little resemblance to Scottish or Irish spirits.

While there exist a number of sub-categories in whiskey—like bourbon, rye, Tennessee, Scotch, Irish or Canadian—they are all distilled from a mash of fermented grains, whether it be barley, corn, rye or wheat.

But how did the difference continue?

Well, early Irish immigrants in the 1700s brought the “e” with them when they immigrated to the United States. At the time, the “e” was kept in whiskey to note the prominent difference, and asserted superiority, of Irish and American whiskeys to the rest of the world’s whisky. Naturally, as a point of pride the Scottish accepted the difference as well and took to ensuring that their whiskies were properly called whisky.

Steve Ison holding a bottle of RC Whiskey at distillery

The difference is so prominent that following New York Times writer Eric Asimov’s article the legendary paper changed its internal guidelines to note the difference between whiskey and whisky. As a guideline espoused by most whiskey/whisky aficionados, if the spirit originated in the United States or Ireland it is whiskey, and if it originated in Scotland, Canada, Japan or elsewhere in the world it is whisky.

At Rebecca Creek Distillery, we’re proud to produce first-class Texas whiskey that has elevated the standard of fine spirits and pushes the frontiers of flavors to new bounds.

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