Whiskey or Whisky? The Difference Explained

Delve into the nuances between whiskey and whisky, uncovering the origins, production methods, and regional distinctions that set these two iconic spirits apart.

If you’ve ever wondered why some people spell whiskey with an “e” and others spell it without, you’re not alone! Though both whisky and whiskey are often used interchangeably, there is actually a subtle difference between the two. Let’s break down the distinction between whiskey and whisky to help clear up any confusion.

What is Whiskey?

Whiskey (also spelled whisky) is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash. It can be made from malted barley, rye, wheat, maize (corn), and other grains. Whiskey typically contains 40-50% alcohol by volume (ABV) but can have higher levels of ABV depending on the variety. The word “whiskey” is derived from the Gaelic phrase uisce beatha, which translates to “water of life.”

What is the Difference Between Whiskey and Whisky?

The difference between whiskey and whisky comes down to their respective regional origins. In countries like Ireland and the United States, whiskey is spelled with an “e.” This spelling distinguishes it from Scottish whisky, which does not contain an “e.” That said, this rule has some exceptions as Canadian whiskies often use both spellings interchangeably.

Further complicating matters is that many whiskeys are blends of different varieties from different regions—so it can be hard to determine what qualifies as a true Irish or Scottish whiskey (or whisky). For example, a blended Irish whiskey may contain malt whiskies from Scotland alongside grain whiskies from Ireland—and these would all be referred to as simply “whiskey.”

Flavour Profiles: Characteristics of Whiskey and Whisky

Whiskey and whisky can have a wide range of flavour profiles, depending on factors such as the type of grain used, the water source, and the production methods employed. Here are some common characteristics of different styles of whiskey/whisky:

  • Scotch whisky: Often has a smoky, peaty flavour (especially in Islay whiskies), with notes of heather, honey, and dried fruit. Some Speyside whiskies are lighter and fruitier.
  • Irish whiskey: Generally lighter and smoother than Scotch, with flavours of vanilla, caramel, and nuts. Some Irish whiskies are triple-distilled, which can result in a cleaner, more delicate flavour.
  • American bourbon: Must be made from at least 51% corn and aged in new, charred oak barrels. Typically has a sweet, rich flavour with notes of caramel, vanilla, and oak.
  • American rye whiskey: Must be made from at least 51% rye and aged in new, charred oak barrels. It often has a spicy, peppery flavour with notes of cinnamon and other baking spices.
  • Canadian whisky: Generally lighter and smoother than other styles, with flavours of vanilla, toffee, and oak. It can be made from a blend of different grains.
  • Japanese whisky: Often characterized by a delicate, nuanced flavour profile with notes of honey, dried fruit, and smoke. Scotch production methods heavily influence some Japanese whiskies.

These are just a few examples of the many flavour profiles found in different types of whiskey/whisky. Individual brands and bottlings can have their unique flavour profiles based on a variety of factors.

Production Methods: How Whiskey and Whisky Are Made?

Whiskey and whisky are made through similar processes. Still, there are some differences depending on the region and type of whiskey/whisky being produced. Here are the basic steps involved in making both:

  • Malting: The process of preparing the grains (usually barley, but sometimes other grains like corn, rye, or wheat) by soaking them in water, allowing them to germinate, and then drying them out.
  • Mashing: The grains are then mixed with hot water to create a sugary liquid known as wort.
  • Fermentation: Yeast is added to the wort, which converts the sugars into alcohol. This process can take several days.
  • Distillation: The fermented liquid (known as a wash) is heated to the point where the alcohol evaporates and is collected in a separate container, leaving behind the leftover solids and water. This process is typically done twice for whiskey and three times for Scotch whisky.
  • Aging: The distilled liquid is then aged in oak barrels for a minimum of 2-3 years (but often much longer) to give it its characteristic flavour and colour. The type of barrel used (e.g. charred or uncharred, new or used) can also impact the final product.
  • Blending: For some types of whiskey/whisky (like blended Scotch), multiple barrels are combined to create a consistent flavour profile. For others (like single malt Scotch), the product comes from a single barrel or batch.

These are the basic steps involved, but many variables can impact the final product, including the type of grain used, the water source, and the specific production techniques used by the distillery.

Conclusion: Which One Should You Choose?

To sum up the difference between whiskey and whisky in a nutshell: if it’s made in Ireland or America, it’s usually spelled “whiskey,” while if it’s made in Scotland, then it’s usually spelled “whisky.”

In the end, whether you prefer “whiskey” or “whisky” is a matter of personal preference. The spelling difference is just one aspect of the many factors that can affect the spirit’s flavour profile, and there are many different styles and brands to choose from.

Ultimately, the best way to discover which type of whiskey/whisky you prefer is to taste a variety of different options and explore the range of flavours and aromas that they have to offer. Whether you prefer the smoky, peaty flavours of Scottish whisky, the smooth, mellow notes of Irish whiskey, or the sweet, rich taste of American bourbon, there is sure to be a whiskey/whisky out there that is just right for you.

So why not try a few different types and see which one you like the best? With so many options to choose from, you’re sure to find a whiskey/whisky that suits your taste and satisfies your thirst for adventure.

Here are some references to support the information above:
“Canadian Whisky”, Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, https://www.discus.org/spirits/canadian-whisky/

“Flavors of Scotch Whisky”, The Scotch Whisky Experience, https://www.scotchwhiskyexperience.co.uk/whisky-information/flavours-of-scotch-whisky

“How Whisky is Made”, Visit Scotland, https://www.visitscotland.com/about/food-drink/whisky/how-its-made/

“Irish Whiskey Flavors: A Guide to Tasting Notes”, Whiskey Watch, https://whiskeywatch.com/irish-whiskey-flavors-a-guide-to-tasting-notes/

“Japanese Whisky: A Beginner’s Guide”, The Whiskey Wash, https://thewhiskeywash.com/whiskey-styles/japanese-whisky/japanese-whisky-beginners-guide/

“The Difference Between Whiskey and Whisky Explained”, Liquor.com, https://www.liquor.com/articles/whiskey-vs-whisky/

“The Difference Between Whiskey and Whisky”, The Spruce Eats, https://www.thespruceeats.com/whiskey-vs-whisky-759717

“The Flavour Profile of Bourbon”, The Bourbon Review, https://www.gobourbon.com/the-flavor-profile-of-bourbon/

“The Process of Making Scotch Whisky”, The Scotch Whisky Association, https://scotchwhisky.com/whiskypedia/how-scotch-is-made/the-process-of-making-scotch-whisky/

“The Whiskey Making Process Explained”, The Whiskey Wash, https://thewhiskeywash.com/whiskey-styles/american-whiskey/the-whiskey-making-process-explained/

“Understanding Rye Whiskey: Flavour Profile, Mash Bill & Brands”, Caskers, https://www.caskers.com/blog/understanding-rye-whiskey-flavor-profile-mash-bill-brands/

“What’s the Difference Between Whiskey and Whisky?”, VinePair, https://vinepair.com/articles/whats-the-difference-between-whiskey-and-whisky/

“Whiskey Production”, Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, https://www.discus.org/spirits/whiskey/whiskey-production/

“Whiskey vs Whisky: What’s the Difference?”, MasterClass, https://www.masterclass.com/articles/whiskey-vs-whisky

All the above sources were accessed on 7 August 2022

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