The spelling whisky is generally used for whiskies distilled in Scotland, Canada, Australia, Japan and Europe, while whiskey is used for the spirits distilled in Ireland and America.
Whether it is whisky or whiskey has been the basis of many arguments over many years. The Scots spell it whisky and the Irish spell it whiskey, with an extra 'e'. This difference in the spelling comes from the translations of the word from the Scottish and Irish Gaelic forms. Whiskey with the extra 'e' is also used when referring to American whiskies. This 'e' was taken to the United States by the Irish immigrants in the 1700s and has been used ever since. Scotland, Ireland and America all have a rich heritage in the whisky industry. So what are the differences between the whiskies from these three nations?
The distillation process
It is here that one of the main differences occurs. generally, Scottish and American whiskies are distilled twice and Irish whiskey is distilled three times (there are exceptions to the rule, in all cases). Distilling three times produces a lighter and smoother spirit.
The size and shape of the stills used in the distillation process are different. In Ireland and much of America, pot stills are frequently used. These are short, fat, large stills with a round base that produce softer and more rounded spirits. In Scotland, distilleries use a wide variety of shapes and size of still and this gives wider diversity of characters and flavours.
The use of peat
In Scotland it is common to use peat to dry the malted barley so that it is ready for milling and mashing. The type of peat used and the length of time the barley is drying in the peat smoke will influence the flavour in the final spirit. This gives Scottish whisky its fullness and traditional smokiness. In Ireland and America, they use wood or other fuels in this process and this makes the spirit less smoky and lighter. Again, there are exceptions. For example, in Ireland Connemara use peat and produce a very smoky range of whiskies.
The use of grains
The Scots use malted barley in most whisky that is produced, however this is not the case in Ireland. They also use malted barley, but may mix other grains in with it. Traditionally Ireland has had a poorer economy than Scotland and barley is expensive to buy. Therefore, it is cheaper to use other grain to produce whiskey. This grain whiskey lends itself to blending and historically it has been used to make cheap blends. In America, the new settlers were forced to use different raw materials to produce their whiskey due to the different climate and soil conditions. This included mixing different grains together during the mashing process depending on what was available. Over time, these different recipes of grain mixtures have evolved so that now, American whiskey bears very little similarity to Scottish or Irish whiskies.
The oldest registered distillery in Ireland is Bushmills, which has been in production since 1608. In Scotland, the oldest one opened in 1772 (Littlemill, which has now closed down). Glenturret is the oldest current distillery in operation, opening in 1775. In Scotland there are currently over 80 distilleries in production but in Ireland there are only three. These three are the result of smaller distilleries joining together. The current distillers adher to the traditional recipes and techniques from each of the original distilleries. This gives the resulting whiskies their own individual characteristics. The three distilleries are Bushmills, Midleton (which produce Jameson's, Powers, Paddy, Tullamore Dew and Midleton) and Cooley (Connemara, Kilbeggan, Locke's and Tyrconnell). The first American distilleries were set up in the late 18th century in Bourbon County, Kentucky. Nowadays, only seven of these are still in operation in Kentucky, with none actually in Bourbon County These seven distilleries are Bernheim, Buffalo Trace, Four Roses, Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve and they produce many different whiskies using a unique, traditional recipe for each. The other major production area in America is in the neighbouring state of Tennessee, although only two distilleries remain in operation − George Dickel and Jack Daniels.