Whisky, Whiskey, and the Others: Understanding The Difference

Whisky or whiskey is a type of distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash. It is one of the most popular alcoholic drinks in the world and Ireland is famous for producing some of the best whiskey in the world.

Various grains are used for different varieties, including barley, corn, rye, and wheat. Whisky is typically aged in wooden casks, generally made of charred white oak.

The English language has two main variations: the original language born on the British isles and taken to even the furthest corners of the world via The British Empire, and the American version that is pretty much the same except for some words and spellings.

These differences are especially conspicuous in the case of common words like chips vs crisps, biscuit vs cookie, trousers vs pants, and whisky vs whiskey.

Surprising as it may sound, the Irish and the Americans agree on the last one: according to Wikipedia, the spelling “whiskey” is common in both countries, while the form “whisky” is used in the rest of the world.

But one thing’s for sure: the alcoholic beverage described by the term differs from one place to another.

Irish Whiskey

There is whiskey (or whisky, see above) and then there is Irish Whiskey – a product with a regulated European Geographical Indication (GI).

There are strict regulations on which spirits can bear this name on their label: they have to be distilled on the island of Ireland, they have to be made using specific ingredients, fermented, distilled, and maturated for at least three years in wooden casks in their country of origin (Ireland, of course). Oh, and it has to have a minimum alcohol content of 40% by volume.

As of June 2019, there are 25 whiskey distilleries in Ireland, many of them new, and a handful that are centuries old – like the Old Bushmills Distillery, founded in 1608, that is also a popular tourist attraction.

Scotch Whisky

Scotch whisky, usually called “Scotch” has a situation similar to Irish whiskey – it has to be made in Scotland while observing the regulations stipulated in the Scotch Whisky Regulations of 2009.

Scotch is made exclusively from water and malted barley, fermented by adding only yeast, wholly aged in oak casks in Scotland for at least three years, and containing no additives other than water and caramel colouring.

There are many brands of scotch sold all over the world, from special editions like the Game of Thrones single-malt whisky collection to labels ranging from Aberfeldy to Johnnie Walker, J&B, and Whyte & Mackay, covering all the letters of the alphabet.

American whiskey

When people left the British Isles to find a new home in America, they obviously took their favourite drink recipes with them. As they were lacking the resources of their homeland, they had to make do with what they had at hand – this is how American whiskey was born.

American whiskey can be made of rye, wheat, corn, and a series of other raw grains – these all result in a distinguished type of beverage.

Perhaps the best-known is the bourbon whiskey, made from a grain mix that contains at least 51% corn, aged in new charred oak containers – it has no specific regulation when it comes to its ageing time, resulting in products that spent as little as three months in the casket to be sold as bourbon.

Another variation is the Tennessee whiskey, very similar to bourbon but with an extra filtering process – the Lincoln County Process – setting it aside.

The Lincoln County Process means that the whiskey is filtered through a thick layer of maple charcoal before the ageing, improving the flavour of the end product.

To add more confusion to the already confused American whiskey industry, these regulations are not universal – they do not apply in the same way to the products sold inside of the country and those made for export, for example.