I am a lucky person. I have great family and friends who love to explore adult beverages, and I have been fortunate to taste some killer stuff. I also have a job that allows me to design and lead spirits classes at my local shop, thanks to an awesome boss who has complete faith in me and my abilities. Additionally, my time spent taking classes with the WSET really helped me learn about and appreciate all kinds of distilled beverages: Gin, Rum, Tequila, Cognac, and of course...whisky.
Or is it whiskey?
So how is it spelled? Does it even matter? We see both spellings on labels, so doesn't there have to be a reason the 'e' is choosing to infiltrate our whisk(e)y?
All spirits trace their roots back to ancient times, where the first evidence of chemical distillation was started by alchemists in ancient Greece, but alcoholic distillation is believed to have started in the 13th century in Italy. These products were used to treat all sorts of diseases and general pestilence, and when the sick were being restored to good health, the term aqua vitae or "water of life" was used to describe these medicinal wonders. When these techniques spread throughout medieval Europe, other terms evolved such as the Dutch brandewijn ("burnt wine"), which later became simply "brandy," and the Slavic voda ("water"), which later became known as vodka. Within the United Kingdom, Usquebaugh (Scottish Gaelic) and Uisge Bethea (Irish Gaelic) also translated to "water of life."
And when the two Gaelic terms were translated/anglicized, for whatever the reason the 'e' stuck in Irish Whiskey, while the 'e' never made it into Scottish Whisky. When Irish immigrants came to the United States with their knowledge of distilling from grains, the American producers started to use the 'e' in their whiskey labels. That is why your bottles of Bourbon are called "Whiskey."
"But Tony," you may be asking, "what about this?"
An excellent question! The Samuels family, who produces Maker's Mark traces their roots to Scotland, not Ireland. Therefore, they chose to roll with the Scottish spelling. Along with Scotch omitting the 'e', so does Canadian Whisky; one of Scotland's first colonies was in Canada back in the 1600s, and their influence has been felt ever since...no 'e' is getting in their whisky!
You might also notice more products are coming in from Japan lately; they also omit the 'e' on whisky labels, mainly because they pattern the majority of their styles after Scotch whisky far more than Irish Whiskey or Bourbon.
So there you have it. Whether you like whisky or whiskey, there are so many out there to sample. Whether it is Scotch, Irish, American, or from some other part of the world, whisk(e)y has never been more popular. Two years ago, the Glenfiddich distillery surpassed one million cases shipped worldwide, a first for a single malt Scotch whisky. Glenlivet is about to do the same. Craft distilleries all over the United States are making tremendous, unique Bourbons and other American whiskey distilled from countless combinations of grains. We have a lot to taste and talk about...how is this a bad thing?
There's a ton to enjoy, so I have narrowed down six for you. Keep in mind that whisk(e)y prices are on the rise and sometimes there is fluctuation from store to store and state to state. Nothing I listed here is cheap, but they are incredibly satisfying starting points for you to begin your adventure...whether you prefer the 'e' or not.
Three without the 'e':
Glenmorangie Original ($40): I just ran out of this in my own bar, which is the best-selling single malt Scotch in Scotland. With its citrus and vanilla flavors, Glenmorangie Original (10 Year Old) is the Scotch I recommend to those who claim they don't like Scotch; it gets them every time. It should be a whisky staple in your home bar.
Forty Creek Double Barrel Reserve ($54): Whisky Maker John Hall creates three separate whiskies made from rye, barley, and corn and ages them all in their own barrels. Then, when the time is right, he blends all three and ages the blend in Bourbon barrels. The result is a full-bodied nutty, spicy whisky that is easy to enjoy at the end of the day by a fire. I have referred to this as "dessert whisky" in my Whisk(e)y 101 classes.
Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky 90 Proof ($65): While Japan's template follows the peated examples from the Scottish islands, this example resembles Bourbon in some ways, as it is mostly made from corn. While it has some sweet vanilla and caramel flavors, the main distinction from a Bourbon whisky is a noticeable meaty/smoky character. This is a welcoming, well-made Japanese whisky and is a fun one to try.
Three with the 'e':
Knappogue Castle 12 Year Old Irish Whiskey ($44): Jameson is certainly the most popular Irish whiskey in America, however Knappogue Castle is strictly a single malt Irish whiskey that is easy to love. Tropical fruit, vanilla, and toasted marshmallow flavors show up in this whiskey that was aged all 12 years in Bourbon casks. This also went over very well with the beginner and connoisseur alike in my last class. You owe to yourself to try this as it delivered big time for the price.
Colonel E.H. Taylor Bourbon Whiskey 100 Proof ($47): I have had multiple friends tell me I needed to try this, and when I found E.H. Taylor at a fantastic wine and spirits shop in Chattanooga this summer, I had to go for it. It's rich, creamy, spicy and fulfilling on a winter evening. There is a little heat on the back of the throat, but when that subsides you are left with caramel apple pie flavor with baking spices lingering long on the palate. This is a steal.
Balcones "1" Single Malt Texas Whiskey ($90): That's right...single malt whisky from Texas. The first time I tasted this, it was given to me without knowing it and I was blown away. This is 100% malted barley and made in the same process as a Scotch whisky, but it is very clear this does not taste 100% like Scotch. It also doesn't taste like a typical Bourbon. Caramel, pecans, vanilla, peach jam, and the entire rack of baking spices (cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg) make an appearance in this very complex whiskey. If you were good this past holiday season and saved a few bucks along the way, I highly recommend giving this a shot.