Why is Whiskey called Whiskey, Whisky, Bourbon or Scotch

Why whiskey is called whiskey

Originally, whiskey is called whiskey because the English did not understand Gaelic. The origin made sense to me when I read a Quora answer, I will explain it briefly.

The Irish used to call their whiskey “uisce beatha” (ish-ke ba-ha) and the the Scots called it “uisge beatha” (ish-ge ba-ha), which means “water of life” in Gaelic. Then came the English speaking people who thought “ui” is pronounced as “whi” which leaves you with “whi-ke”. Connect the dots and the appreciated water of life is called whiskey. [source]

But this raises the next question! Depending on what bottle you bought or where you live, you might spell whiskeys as whiskey or as whisky. Confusing? It’s actually quite simple.

Why some whiskey is called whisky

  • Whiskey is used in Ireland and the United States
  • Whisky is used in Scotland, Canada and Japan

In the United States, all the whiskey that is distilled is called whiskey with an extra e. In Ireland it is the same story. However, all the Scots, Japanese and Canadians call their whisky: whisky! Without the e.

Essentially, it is the same stuff. When you talk about the drink, it is pronounced exactly the same, but when written you can tell something about the drink based on the usage of the extra e. When the bottle says whisky you can be sure it is not brewed in the States, nor in Ireland.

Selection of whiskey bottles on the bar shelf. Selective focus on the Johnnie Walker Black Label bottle.

Why some whisky is called scotch

  • Made from water and malted barley
  • Distilled to less then 94.8% alcohol, bottled at no less then 40% alcohol
  • Aged for a minimum of 3 years in a cask that can hold no more than 700 liters
  • No allowed additives except for water and caramel coloring
  • Made in Scotland

If a whisky is to be called scotch, it needs to adhere to a certain set of rules. The rules are described above, and you can image that drinking a glass of scotch is more relaxing then actually distilling one.

Variations on scotch include single malt scotch, which is made exclusively with malted barley and produced in one single distillery. Blended scotch is a mix (blend) of different malted or grain scotch whiskys. Around 9 out of 10 bottles sold around the world are blends, so they are a huge part of the whisky industry.

There is no need to add an age statement on a bottle of scotch, however it is common. The age statement tell you how many years the whisky has aged in a cask. If there is an age statement on a blended whisky, this is the aging time of the youngest whisky in the blend.

For example, if the whisky consists of 90% whisky that has aged for 20 years but for 10% of 10-year-old whisky the age statement on the bottle of the blend will say 10 year old.

Why some whiskey is called bourbon

  • Made from a mash that is at least 51% corn
  • Distilled to 80% alcohol, diluted to 62.5% alcohol before being aged
  • Aged in an unused oak barrel that is charred on the inside
  • No age minimum
  • Bottled at no less than 40% Alcohol By Volume (ABV)
  • No additives allowed
  • Made in the United States

Bourbon arguably has the strictest regulation, and you have to adhere to some pretty specific rules in order to call a whiskey a bourbon. Those rules are specified above.

Originally, the name Bourbon comes from Old Bourbon, what is nowadays called Bourbon County, Kentucky. While bourbon originates from Kentucky, all distilleries in the United States can call their whiskey a bourbon when they have followed the correct production process.

Tennessee whiskey is different from bourbon. The difference is what happens after the distillation process: the Tennessee Whiskey is filtered through sugar-maple charcoal. This filtering is called the Lincoln County Process and is what distinguishes a Tennessee Whiskey from a regular bourbon.

Someone holds a bottle of 16 years aged Lagavulin single malt whisky at the Lagavulin whisky distillery with old oak cask on the background.

What about Irish whiskey

Irish whiskey can by law only be called Irish whiskey when it is distilled to less than 94.8% ABV and aged for a minimum of 3 years in wooden barrels. There is no rule that specifies whether the barrels should be new, so they use a lot of previously used bourbon barrels.

If the whiskey is made according to this process and is made in Ireland, it can be called Irish whiskey.

Another source used for this article is a new-post from BCC (source).

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