What Is The Difference Between Scotch Whisky And Whiskey?

If you are new to the world of whisky cask ownership or spirits in general, one topic that is often a source of confusion revolves around a single letter ‘e’.

Connoisseurs of scotch, enthusiastic cask owners and people who know their spirits know that there is a fundamental difference between “whisky” and “whiskey”, and getting them mixed up in the wrong circles can be a faux pas.

Because a single letter can make so much of a difference, here is the fundamental difference between whisky and whiskey, where the nomenclature change comes from and why it matters.

One Single Letter, One Single Origin

Legally, whisky is spelt without an “e” in Scotland, and all but two other countries in the world that produce whisky spell it the Scottish way. 

However, the other two countries are Ireland and the United States, both of which produce so much “whiskey” that people who buy both Scotch and bourbon may use the two spellings interchangeably.

Both spellings come from the Gaelic word “uisce” or “uisge” depending on where you are using 

Classical Irish Gaelic or Scottish Gaelic respectively, which translates to water.

This name derives from “uisce betha” or “uisge beatha”, which are the two Gaelic translations of aqua vitae, the Latin term for alcoholic spirits.

What complicates matters is that the orthographical fixing of Scotch whisky and Irish/American whiskey is relatively recent in whisky terms, only seriously coming into effect in the 20th century and only finally coalescing in the 1960s.

Before then, choosing “to ‘e’ or not to ‘e’” was a question that generally came down to the personal preferences of different whisky manufacturers, writers and stockists, although even before clear style guides there was a gradual shift.

In 1908, The Royal Commission had a meeting about “Whiskey and Other Potable Spirits”, using the ‘e’ in its spelling throughout. A year later, however, that same Commission changed its stance and removed the ‘e’ in all uses. 

This suggests, and writers such as Charles MacLean have stated, that the standardised spellings for Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky started to become more standardised, but outside of the two countries the spelling was still not consistent, often determined along this same divide.

In Canada, where there is a very long shared history with Scotland, whisky producers kept using the Scottish spelling, whilst in the United States it varied considerably depending on the type of whisky and who made it.

Whilst many popular bourbon manufacturers, most notably Jack Daniels, have always used “whiskey” as the spelling, Maker’s Mark continues to use the Scottish spelling to this day as a tribute to the Scottish roots of the Samuels family who first distilled it.

Meanwhile, George Dickel, who also uses the Scottish spelling, did so as a marketing stunt, claiming it was as smooth as the finest Scotch drams.

The strangest use of the Scottish spelling in the United States is by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), who consistently use the term “whisky” in its legislation rather than the spelling more popularly used in the United States.

Ultimately, it can get very confusing, but the most important point to take away from all of this is that you will never find a Scotch “whiskey” cask to buy no matter how hard you look.