The Difference Between Whiskey and Whisky

October 25, 2010 at 2:00 am 15 comments

By Chad Upton | Editor

It’s the start of another work week, so it’s a good time to talk about drinking.

Frankly, I spent a lot of time researching this subject. I found that after getting over the novelty of drinking, which seems like the primary function of post secondary education, you’ll start to appreciate the subtle flavors in finer varieties of liquor. One of the most popular liquors is whisky.

There are two correct ways to spell it: Whisky and Whiskey. Whiskey refers to whiskeys distilled in Ireland and the United States. Whisky, on the other hand, is generally used for whiskies distilled in Scotland, Wales, Canada, Japan and other countries. 

Whisky is a confusing subject and not just because the two spellings have distinct means, but because there are so many varieties. The most popular types of whisky are: Scotch, Irish, Bourbon, Tennessee and Rye. There are plenty of other types and they come from every corner of the globe.


The name whisky is derived from a Gaelic word that means, “water of life.” Distillation of this water goes back about 4000 years, to the area that is now known as Iraq. It started as a way to purify perfumes and aromatics. It is thought to have made it to Ireland by Irish missionaries in the 6th century and from Northern Africa to other parts of Europe where it spread through monasteries, mostly for treatment of colic, palsy and smallpox.

When distillation spread to Ireland and Scotland, the islands had few grapes, so beer was made from barley and resulted in the development of whisky. In 1725, the English Malt Tax resulted in many of Scotland’s distillers to shutdown or go underground. Distillers began making their whisky at night because the darkness hid the smoke from the stills. This is where the term “moonshine” came from.

In the 1920’s in the United States, all alcohol was banned under prohibition laws. The only exemption was whisky, which could be prescribed by doctors and sold through licensed pharmacies. It was at this time when the Walgreens pharmacy grew from 40 stores to nearly 400. Much like the case of the hemp production ban that currently exists in the US, Canada supplied the medicinal Whisky when it was prohibited too.

Although there are many categories, whisky is generally made in two ways. Malt whisky is made entirely from malted barley. Grain whisky is made from malted and unmalted barley along with other grains, usually for flavor and texture. Whiskies also get their flavor from lactone, found in the oak barrels that many whiskies are aged in. The differences beyond the ingredients start to get very specific and that’s why there are thousands of whiskies in production today. Here is a breakdown of some of the most popular categories and some popular brands in each:


Scotches are one of the most popular types of whisky. They are often distilled two or sometimes three times. International laws require that “Scotch” be distilled in Scotland and aged for at least three years and one day in oak casks. Because many whiskies are blended, the age of the youngest whisky used in the blend must be indicated as the age on the bottle. When there is no age, it’s likely the whisky is very close to the three year minimum. Whisky does not age in the bottle, so the time in the cask is critical to its maturity.

Although “single malt” whiskies are available in all categories, they are more common with Scotch and Irish whiskies. Single Malt simply means that all of the whisky is from a single distillery. They often contain whisky from multiple casks, and only “single cask” whiskies are from the same cask. Single Cask is not necessarily higher quality than Single Malt, it just indicates that the whisky has not been blended with whisky from other casks, which is commonly done to achieve the consistent flavor that you expect from a brand.

Popular examples: Chivas Regal, J&B, Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Johnnie Walker.


These whiskeys are typically distilled three times. They must be produced in Ireland and aged in wooden casks for at least three years, although it’s common to age them three to four times longer. There are exceptions, but unpeated malt is one of the distinctive characteristics of Irish whiskey. It is mixed with unmalted barley to create “pure pot still” whiskey, which has a bit of a spicy taste that is unique to Irish whiskeys.

Popular examples: Bushmills, Jameson, Knappogue, Tullamore.


Named after Bourbon County, Kentucky, this type of American whiskey is primarily made from corn (maize). In fact, it has to be made in the United States and contain at least 51% corn. Typically, it’s about 70% corn, the rest is wheat and/or rye and malted barley. The high content of corn is the main characteristic of it’s unique flavor. It cannot be more than 160 proof, contain any coloring or flavoring and must be aged in new, charred oak barrels. If it’s aged less than four years, the age must be labeled on the bottle.

Popular examples: Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, Maker’s Mark, Evan Williams.


Tennesseee Whisky is almost identical to Bourbon, with the exception that it is filtered through sugar maple charcoal, which is thought to remove some unpleasant flavors and produce a clearer whisky. It was officially recognized as a distinct style of whisky in 1941, before which it was considered bourbon. Until 2009, only three counties in Tennessee were allowed to produce drinkable spirits. The law has been expanded to include another 41 counties, which should lead to more varieties of Tennessee Whiskey.

Popular examples: Jack Daniel’s, George Dickel and Pritchard’s are the only three brands.


Rye is sometimes, often incorrectly, referred to as Canadian Whisky. Although rye is a popular ingredient in Canadian Whisky, the Canadian government does not require any specific proportion of rye in Canadian Whisky. Interestingly enough, Rye whisky from the United States must contain at least 51% malted rye. Canadian blends often contain less rye than American “Rye” whiskeys but more rye than most other types of whisky. The additional rye makes these wiskies among the smoothest of all whiskies.

Popular Canadian Rye examples: Crown Royal, Canadian Club, Seagram’s, Wiser’s.

Popular American Rye examples: Jim Beam Rye, Wild Turkey Rye, Van Winkle Family, Michters.


All whiskies are popular straight up or on the rocks. It is also common to drink them with water, cola, ginger ale or other sodas and juices. Some popular whisky cocktails include: Whisky Sour, Rusty Nail (Scotch), Manhattan (Bourbon) and Old Fashioned (Bourbon).

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Sources: Suite 101, Whiskey Wise, Whisky Mag, Wikipedia (Whisky, Whisky Brands, Lactone)

Entry filed under: Food and Drink. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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15 Comments Add your own

  • 1. wordsbybob  |  October 25, 2010 at 10:36 am

    Nice article. I never new the difference between all these “spirits.”

    Makes me thirsty–HA!

    I would like to cite this blog post of yours in my blog. I write a blog caled that explores the use, misuse and humor in words.

    I would, of course, give you full credit and a link to your URL.


    • 2. Chad Upton  |  October 25, 2010 at 12:23 pm


      Thanks. Yes, feel free to cite and give credit. The only thing I don’t permit is “citing” the entire post. :)

      I like your blog!

  • 3. Sue  |  October 25, 2010 at 10:39 am

    I found this really Informative. Coming from a background of non-drinkers, I did not know many of these secrets ( now broken)

  • 4. Jeremy Wilson  |  December 6, 2010 at 10:28 am

    One small correction – for a whisky to be labeled “bourbon” it must be produced in Kentucky. If it is produced anywhere else it cannot be labeled “bourbon”.

  • 7. Cocktail Terminology « Broken Secrets  |  March 11, 2011 at 9:11 am

    […] back – a glass of non-alcoholic liquid served with your cocktail, such as water for mixing with Whiskey […]

  • 8. Website Marketing Services  |  January 24, 2012 at 1:46 pm

    Simply want to say your article is as surprising. The clarity on your put up is just cool and that i can suppose you’re knowledgeable in this subject. Fine with your permission let me to grasp your feed to stay up to date with impending post. Thank you 1,000,000 and please carry on the rewarding work.

  • […] some call it the “whiskey that wants to be a whisky.” (For notes on the spellings, check out this […]

  • 10. Scott  |  August 23, 2012 at 8:58 am

    Just FYI, most original Old Fashioned recipes call for using Rye and not Bourbon. The Bourbon only became the norm once Rye lost its popularity due to prohibition, after which, it never really made a comeback (until very recently).

  • 11. Ryan  |  December 8, 2012 at 12:21 pm

    Dumb question but why do you not use the letter “e” when you are talking about the American whiskies? Can I person use the spelling loosely or is it patented?

  • 12. Simon  |  January 19, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    Nice article but I’m not sure you’ve got your ‘single malt’ facts quite right. Its not single malt because it’s from a single distillery (it may well be from a single distillery but that’s not the reason for the name). It’s single malt because they only use one single type of malted grain from one specific place. This is why the single malts are always associated with areas of Scotland. e.g. Islays, Speysides, Highlands, Lowlands etc.

    A Blended whisky may be made from multiple grains from different areas. That it why its a blend. Not because it is made in different distilleries!

  • 13. Quora  |  February 28, 2013 at 11:33 am

    Why add a drop of water to whiskey?…

    Why? Why does the manufacturer not do this for you? Whiskey is made by the distiller the way it is made and I prefer to drink it just like it was made…NEAT! > There are two correct ways to spell it: Whisky and Whiskey. Whiskey refers to whiskeys dist…

  • […] some call it the “whiskey that wants to be a whisky.” (For notes on the spellings, check out this […]

  • 15. West Coast Whiskey - St. George  |  January 5, 2018 at 1:51 am

    […] some call it the “whiskey that wants to be a whisky.” (For notes on the spellings, check out this […]


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