Whisky …. or is it spelt WhiskEy? An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into an American pub. Who gets served?
This is no joke! The champions of single malt Scottish whisky are still asking themselves: “Why do the Irish and Americans insist on misspelling their precious drink, adding in the letter ‘E’?”
The origins of this debate go back over 150 years. But to understand the background, we need to journey back even further.
It is assumed that the Irish brought ‘uisge beatha’ (pronounced uska beg) to Scotland towards the end of the Middle Ages. From 1494, the liquid gold known as ‘the water of life’ can be found in various official Scottish records.
Skip the bit about Scottish monarchs taking over the English royal line. Ignore England’s brutal subduing of the Scots in the middle of the 18th century. Go straight to the middle of the 19th century. Aeneas Coffey invented a still for blending whisky. And in 1860, the Parliament in Westminster legalised the use of grains.
Blending is all about the use of grain, as opposed to barley. The Irish distillers, who were very much the Fords and Teslas of their day, turned down the ‘tech’. Brewing and distilling employed vast numbers of people living in their main cities. There was no need to change.
Scottish distillers saw their opportunity to catch up with their brothers from across the sea. They endorsed blending. The argument went back and forth across the Irish Sea, only being settled by a Royal Commission in 1908. However, by then, the Irish had started to spell ‘that word’ with an ‘E’ and thus differentiate themselves.
It took until the post-prohibition period for Americans to endorse the spelling with an ‘E’. Apparently in North America, the Irish version of the spirit was more popular than the exports from Scotland. The American distillers caught onto the branding issue and rapidly changed their labelling. The rest is history.
It is difficult to argue today that these little differences carry any significance beyond pride. The Scottish whisky industry is booming. There are now about 30 distilleries in England and Wales, also following the lead of the Scottish Whisky Association. Ditto re Israel, Australia, Japan and elsewhere.
That growth in whisky sales also applies to Ireland and America. However, there is always an exception. Maker’s Mark was first established in Kentucky in 1805 by Taylor Samuels, who claimed Scottish ancestry. To this day, this is a bourbon sold as whisky. No ‘E’.
As for the effect on the taste? Enjoy your dram, whichever way you want to spell the word whisky (or is that…..)