Whisky or Whiskey – A Brief History

Whisky Tasting Note

Whisky or whiskey – which is the correct way to spell this wondrous spirit?


Is it whisky or whiskey? Oddly enough this can be a very loaded question. All whiskies, regardless of spelling have seen a tremendous surge in popularity over the last decade. But how has history played a part in the modern ‘whisky or whiskey’ debate and why are there two versions anyway? Today the selected spelling depends largely on where your whisky or whiskey is from, but to a smaller extent it depends on choice. Let’s see how it all began.

The 15th Century

The first known historical reference to whisk(e)y is from the early 15th century. In 1405 it was recorded in Ireland’s ‘Annals of Clonmacnoise’ that an Irish chieftain had died “taking a surfeit of aqua vitae at Christmas”. Sadly, the original Gaelic documents were lost and we rely on a 17th-century English translation for this account. The first reference to whisky from Scotland is from a document called the Exchequer Rolls. The Rolls recorded King James IV of Scotland’s expenditure and includes this fascinating snippet from 1494: 

“Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor, by order of the king, to make aqua vitae“.

 There’s a good reason they keep saying ‘aqua vitae’ instead of whisky or whiskey. They are talking about at whisky, but look at the maker’s name. ‘Friar’ John Cor was a religious man as friars are monks that live in the community instead of monasteries. He would have been a Roman Catholic friar given the period and at this time the noble and religious classes all spoke Latin. It says aqua vitae instead of whisky or whiskey because aqua vitae is Latin for ‘Water of Life’. Oddly, in the 15th century it was primarily primarily monks and friars who distilled spirits, but that’s another story.

If you’re curious, 500 bolls of malt is estimated to be enough malted barley to make 500 bottles of whisky.

Later in Ireland and Scotland

Later, whisky production spread outside of these religious roots. This in turn led to a Gaelic being used to name the spirit instead of Latin. In Ireland it became Uisce Beatha, and in Scotland it became Uisge Beatha. Both preserve the exact meaning of ‘water of life’ from the Latin. These names were later shortened to Uisce and Uisge respectively and eventually became whisk(e)y

This happened at a time when people were less literate than they are today. This is largely why Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky ended up with different spellings. There is a famous story that the Irish chose a different spelling to Scotland because they believed their whiskey was far better and should not be confused.  That may or may not have be true, but the quality differences no longer exist.

America 18th Century

In the 1700s there was a large Irish immigrant population in America. It is partly for this reason that Americans naturally followed the Irish spelling ‘whiskey’. Although it is widely believed that Americans consistently use this spelling, the truth is more complicated. The legislation governing alcohol production in the US uses both spellings and actually favours ‘whisky’. Some American distilleries still choose to use the spelling ‘whisky’, such as Maker’s Mark

Japan 20th Century

The Japanese whisky industry was influenced not by Irish immigrants but the Japanese scholar Masataka Taketsuru. Taketsuru studied Organic Chemistry in Glasgow starting in 1919. After graduation, he worked in two Scottish single malt whisky distilleries before returning to Japan. At home, he was pivotal in founding the Japanese whisky industry. Heavily influenced by his time in Scotland, he followed the Scottish spelling ‘whisky’ as has almost every other whisky producer around the world.

But Seriously

Whether you want to spell it whisky or whiskey, just make sure you are enjoying the stuff. If you ever have trouble remembering the correct spelling, consider this: There’s an ‘e’ in America and in Ireland, so spell whiskey with an ‘e’. There’s no ‘e’ in Scotland or Japan, so spell whisky without.

If you have a question or two you’d like answering, I’d love to hear from you. You can read more more about me here or click on my social media icons below.

Written for and first published in ThirstMag.


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