Whiskey goes by many different names, including scotch, bourbon, and rye. To add to the confusion, whiskey has two spelling variations: whiskey, with an “e,” and whisky, without. The subtle difference has left many people scratching their heads.
The conventional knowledge is that whisky hails from Scotland, while whiskey has its roots in Ireland. However, there’s much more to it. In the hundreds of years since whiskey was invented, dozens of variations from different regions have appeared.
So, what’s the difference between whiskey and whisky? The answer lies in more than just a simple spelling difference.
Both whiskey and whisky get their spellings from translations of the Gaelic term “Uisce Beatha,” meaning “water of life.” It’s not entirely clear where the additional “e” came from. One theory is that Irish whiskey makers used the alternated spelling to differentiate themselves from lower-quality Scottish whiskies.
The spelling of the spirit also varies outside of Scotland and Ireland. Whiskey was introduced to America by the Irish, which is why in the United States, we call it whiskey, with an “e.” Canada abides by the Scottish “whisky,” as does Japanese whisky.
The following spirits all fall under the whisky category:
Scotch is one of the most popular and well-known whiskies. The spirit is made using a mix of malted barley and other unmalted grains, including maize and wheat. It’s heated over a peat fire, giving it its distinct smoky flavor.
The United Kingdom has strict laws about what type of spirit can label itself as scotch. The spirit needs to mature in an oak barrel for at least three years to be considered scotch. Single malt scotch must be made from 100 percent barley. And most importantly, the spirit must be produced in Scotland. Otherwise, it cannot claim the name “scotch.”
Canadians are also well known for their whisky. Most Canadian whiskies are blended-style whiskies that rely heavily on corn for their light and smooth flavor.
Canada is also a large producer of rye whisky. However, there are no regulations on how much rye the whisky needs to contain to be considered rye. Canadian whisky labeled as rye sometimes has little to no rye in it at all.
Japanese whisky was modeled after scotch, which is how it received its spelling. The two are often likened to one another, as their production processes are similar. However, Japanese whisky is typically less peated, offering a lighter and fresher flavor palate than scotch. Unlike scotch, Japanese whisky has no minimum maturation period.
The following spirits fall under the Whiskey category:
Like its counterpart, scotch, Irish whiskey is incredibly popular worldwide. The spirit is typically distilled three times, giving it its impeccable smoothness.
Irish whiskey is made from a combination of grains, including unmalted barley. The spirit is made using little to no peat, meaning the flavor profile is light and fruity rather than smoky. Like scotch, Irish whiskey must be matured for at least three years.
Bourbon is an American whiskey that comes predominantly from Kentucky. The whiskey must be made from at least 51% corn with rye and malted barley.
Bourbon gets its flavor through a sour mash process, whereby corn mash is fermented with yeast and later mixed in with a mash that has already been fermented.
Like scotch, bourbon cannot be labeled as such unless it was produced in the United States. The U.S. also regulates the ingredients and production methods of bourbon.
As the name suggests, Rye whiskey is a spirit made from a rye mash or a rye and malt mash. Rye whiskey tends to be spicier and bolder in flavor than other whiskeys.
According to United States regulations, the mash must be at least 51% rye for the spirit to be called rye whiskey. This differs from Canadian rye whisky, which has no minimum rye content requirement.
No. Choosing a whiskey all comes down to personal preference. Most people find their favorite whiskey through a long process of trial and error.
A lot more goes into choosing a whiskey or whisky than a single letter, including flavor profile, smoothness, and aging processes. If nothing else, the presence or lack of an e is a marker that can help you identify your favorite type of whiskey once you land on one.