As much as I enjoy having the occasional drink, I really don’t consider myself to be much of an aficionado when it comes to alcohol. I don’t know much about wine (though the wine tasting in Paris helped), but I do understand the fundamental difference between ales and lagers. What about spirits, hard liquors and highballs? If you’re having a Jack and Coke, you’re really having a whiskey and cola… or it is a whisky and cola?
Whether you spell it as whiskey or whisky, it is an alcoholic beverage that is made from fermented grain mash. This could involve barley, rye, malted barley, wheat or corn, among other grains. It is then aged in wooden casks and the production of whisky/whiskey is often very heavily regulated, especially when it comes to how a company can name their whiskey/whisky. It does make a difference when you talk about things like “single malt” or “bourbon.”
As a general rule of thumb, how you spell whisky (or whiskey) depends on where the drink is produced.
Whisky (without the “E”) refers to the liquor if it is made in Scotland (“Scotch whisky”) or if it is Scotch-inspired, as would be the case with the whiskies produced in such countries as Canada and Japan. Popular brands of Scotch whisky include Chivas Regal, Glenlivet and Glenfiddich. Canadian Club is a popular brand of Canadian whisky and it is a brand that is produced by the same company that makes Jim Beam in the United States. Crown Royal is another popular Canadian brand of whisky and it’s owned by Diageo, the same company that owns Smirnoff and Johnnie Walker.
Whiskey (with the “E”) typically refers to the liquor if it is Irish. The “whiskey” spelling is also preferred by American producers. Perhaps the best known Irish whiskey is Jameson. In the United States, you may be familiar with Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey and Jack Daniel’s. The term “whiskey” is an umbrella term for this type of alcohol and it also includes sub-types like bourbon (made from a mash with at least 51% corn), rye (at least 51% rye), and malt whiskey (at least 51% malted barley).
Just as people have their preferences when it comes to other kinds of beverages, you’re going to have some people who will tell you that Scotch is vastly superior to Irish whiskey (and vice versa). And just as you have people who have very discerning tastes for wine, you’ll have people who are very particular about their whisky and whiskey. While there may be some exceptions, most countries of the world that produce the beverage will spell it as whisky, with the noted exceptions of Ireland the United States that prefer whiskey.
Interestingly, the word whisky/whiskey actually comes from an old Gaelic word that simply means water. I don’t know anyone who has ever gotten intoxicated on water, but that certainly can’t be said about whisky and whiskey!