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the water of life

Whisky vs. Whiskey: Boozy Grammar Matters

By Bull Garlington

If you’re a word nerd, the use of “whisky” and “whiskey” in my recent post “How to Order Whisky for Your Boss — Like a Boss” may have given you an aneurysm. I feel ya. But it was all well and proper as those are separate spirits, not the same thing misspelled.

Let’s explore.

The Water of Life

The ancient Gaelic languages (Irish, Scottish and Manx) called distilled spirits the water of life, written uisce beatha, or a subtle variation thereof. Uisce is pronounced “whisky,” which is how we get our current pronunciation of either term.

Whisky Is Scotch

Whisky without an “e” refers to all whiskeys produced using the Scottish method. Malted barley is distilled twice in stills of various shapes and sizes, each giving its booze a quality based on the shape and materials used to build the still.

Scotch whisky’s most distinctive feature is the flavor of smoke from drying the barley over burning peat to prepare it for mashing before distilling.

Irish and American distilleries also dry their grains but typically use wood fires, which leave hardly any smoke flavor.

Whiskey Is Irish

Irish whiskey isn’t whisky because whiskey production differs in almost every step. Instead of malted barley, Irish whiskey is made from a mixture of grains. Whiskey also differs from whisky in the use of round-bottomed short pot stills. These fat-bottomed stills give the whiskey a rounder quality. Finally, Irish whiskey is distilled three times, where whisky is only distilled once. Therefore, whisky isn’t whiskey any more than whiskey is whisky.

Whiskey Is American, Too

Early Americans faced different climate and soil conditions, so they couldn’t grow the same grains as their Scottish and Irish families across the Atlantic. Americans developed a mash from various grains and corn, resulting in a whiskey that retains the “e” from Irish whiskey but is a whiskey that’s nothing at all like whiskey, or whisky. Whether it’s rye or bourbon, its flavor is uniquely American.

Illustration ©

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BULL Garlington Bull Garlington

Analog Attorney columnist Bull Garlington is an award-winning author, columnist and public speaker. He is the author of the books “Fat in Paris,” “The Full English,” “Death by Children” and “The Beat Cop’s Guide.” He prefers South American literature, classic jazz, Partagas 1945s, a decent Laphroaig, and makes a mean chicken and andouille gumbo. Follow him @bull_garlington.

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