The term whiskey is said to have evolved from the Gaelic uisge beatha, meaning "water of life." Of course, the term "water of life" has been used in many European cultures to refer to the local liquor: Aquvit in Sweden (derived from the Latin aqua vitae) and eau de vie in France refer to regional spirits in those nations.
Interestingly, the Oxford English Dictionary does not differentiate between whisky and whiskey, using a single entry for both terms. It does, however, list several alternative spellings which were used in the eighteenth century, including whiskie and whiskee. It appears that no consistent spelling was being used in the nineteenth century, with American and English writers using both spellings interchangeably. The standardization of the various spellings may not have occurred until the late nineteenth or early twentieth century.
The Current Practice
The current practice among malt writers in the US and UK is to change the spelling based on the type of drink being discussed. If it's Scotch, you call it whisky (e.g., Highland Park is a great whisky), if it's Irish, you call it whiskey (e.g., Bushmills is a fine whiskey)...etc. This is the usage in both of the major magazines covering the area: Whisky Magazine (British) and Malt Advocate (American).
When simultaneously referring to two whiskies with different spellings, Scotch and Irish for example, many writers use the term whisk(e)y.
To E: Chuck Cowdery
Chuck Cowdery argues for a change in this standard practice. Cowdery publishes the Chuck Cowdery Blog and is the author of Bourbon, Straight one of the best books around about Bourbon and rye.
A few weeks ago, Chuck proposed, on his blog, that American writers always spell whiskey with an "e". Chuck compared the use of "whisky" by American writers to the use of other spellings that are nonstandard between American and British English:
Whiskey is one of those English words—like aging, center, color, maneuver, and many others—that Americans and Brits spell differently. American writers often struggle to use the British spelling when referring to scotch whiskey (i.e., 'whisky,' no 'e'). UK writers occasionally return the favor. An American would never think of spelling color with a 'u' just because the subject is colors used by an English painter, for example. Why should whiskey be any different?
Chuck makes an exception for proper nouns. When the word is part of a name, it would be spelled as such. This is also consistent with general American usage; for example, an American newspaper would write about the British labor movement but the British Labour Party.
Why is this issue important? Chuck is concerned that the different spelling "suggests that 'whiskey' and 'whisky' are two different words with different meanings when they are not." In Chuck's view, this creates confusion and leads people to imagine "nutty distinctions" between whisky and whiskey.
As a disclaimer, I should note that, when I started this blog, prior to Chuck's posting, I decided I would use the "e" in my blog for the same reason Chuck gives, namely, that is how we normally deal with US/UK spelling distinctions. However, I have been reexamining that position based on the debate presented here.
Not to E: Kevin Erskine
After seeing Chuck's post and being intrigued by it, I went directly to someone I knew would take the contrary position. Kevin Erskine publishes The Scotch Blog and is the author of The Instant Expert's Guide to Single Malt Scotch, the best introduction to Scotch around.
Kevin is a strong believer in using the version of the word which is consistent with the type of drink being discussed. Indeed, he has unabashedly taken no less than the Wall Street Journal to task for using the e in reference to Scotch.
Kevin takes issue with Chuck's modest proposal. From his perspective, whisky and whiskey refer to different drinks. To call Scotch a whiskey is to mislabel it. "Whisky" describes Scotch, "whiskey" does not.
And Kevin doesn't buy the analogy to words like color and colour. He thinks it's more akin to Fish & Chips. We call it by its British name rather than altering it to, say, Fried Fish Fillet & Fries, because Fish & Chips is the dish's proper name. It seems that the crux of Kevin's reasoning is not that there is a difference between whisky and whiskey, both are distilled and aged grain spirits just as Fried Fish and Fries is the same thing as Fish & Chips, it's that whisky designates a particular style and implies certain qualities. If I order Fish & Chips, I know I'm going to get a fillet of fried white fish served with malt vinegar and tartar sauce, whereas, if I see a menu item entitled Fried Fish Fillet with Fries, I wouldn't have the same expectation -- it could be salmon or snapper and I would have no hint as to the condiments.
Moreover, Kevin thinks this is a matter of respect and that imposing our spelling will be taken as typical American egotism by our friends in Scotland, Canada and Japan. Since journalism on this issue has a world-wide audience, this is not a trivial concern.
To E and Not to E: US Spellings
While we have been discussing this issue primarily as a US/UK issue, or more accurately, a US-Ireland/UK-Japan-Canada issue, there is a variance of usage even within the US. The standard spelling used for the US drink in writing is whiskey, but it's not clear cut.
The Code of Federal Regulations, which provides the official, legal definition of the term actually uses the British spelling: whisky. (27 C.F.R. §5.22). Most American whiskies, however, use the e, though not all. Makers Mark, for instance, leaves it out.
For Tennessee Whisk(e)y, which is not defined by law, the problem is particularly acute. There are only two producers of the drink and they spell it differently. Jack Daniels is Tennessee Whiskey while George Dickel is Tennessee Whisky. So, when writing about Tennessee, generically, would it be whisky, whiskey or whisk(e)y?
In a recent article about Tennessee, Whisky Magazine actually used both spellings in successive sentences, though it's possible that one was a typo. (See The Tennessee Question, Whisky Magazine, December 2007, p. 74).
Chuck and Kevin are both fonts of knowledge and are as passionate as they are knowledgeable. Based on their writings, I respect both of their opinions and know that they have a deep knowledge of the drink and the industry in which they specialize (Bourbon for Chuck and Scotch for Kevin). Clearly, reasonable bloggers can disagree on this issue.
So, what of the "e"? Is its use a symbol of American arrogance and a fundamental mislabeling or is it simply a sign of consistency and standardization (standardisation?) of spellings?
The matter is op(e)n for debate...Let me know what you think.