Is it Whisky or Whiskey?

Most everyone has been told that whisky without the “e” is for Scotch whisky and that whiskey with the “e” is for everything else. But I checked out the new Google labs Books Ngram Viewer (Google needs a better title) to see when the different spellings arose. For the uninitiated, Ngram Viewer allows you to enter phrases or words into a search box. The viewer then collects and graphs the number of times those words appear from a given date range.

Here is what I found when I compare the usages of whisky and whiskey (in each graph the blue line is used for whisky):

whisky v. whiskey

whisky v. whiskey

As you can see, whiskey was the preferred spelling until the Civil War, when whisky became more or as commonly used. The spelling whisky takes off around WWI and then starts a steep decline at the end of WWII. By 1965 whiskey takes over as the more common spelling. But what about the phrase “bourbon whisky” v. “bourbon whiskey?” Here is the chart:

bourbon whisky v. bourbon whiskey

bourbon whisky v. bourbon whiskey

I understand that there are more kinds of whiskey than just Kentucky bourbon, but I’m looking for patterns. Here we see that the term was usually spelled as it is now, “bourbon whiskey” from 1910 to the end of Prohibition, when the term “bourbon whisky” started to emerge. The fairly recent vintage of the term “bourbon whiskey” is surprising. I had just assumed that it was commonly used before WWII. It was not. Anyway, both terms had equal usages until the 1950s when the old-style spelling regained prominence and the British spelling dropped to nearly nothing by the 1980s.

What about “Scotch whisky” v. “Scotch whiskey?” Here is that chart:

scotch whisky v. scotch whiskey

scotch whisky v. scotch whiskey

The term “scotch whisky” first appears around 1910, and disappears until Prohibition kicks in. It remains the most popular term until the late 1950s when it is overtaken by the term “Scotch whiskey.”

Google’s Ngram Viewer blends both British and American sources. If we split the two, what do the Brits and Scots call their whiskey/whisky? They clearly prefer the spelling “whisky.” Here is the chart, corrected for British books only:

British whisky v. British whiskey

whisky v.whiskey using British sources

Here is the “whisky” v. “whiskey” comparison using only American sources:

whisky v. whiskey using Amercian Sources

whisky v. whiskey using Amercian Sources

It is clear to me that the historically preferred spelling over here in the USA is ‘whiskey.” That spelling had strong competition with the British spelling beginning around the Civil War. Prohibition brought a temporary change in usage. Eventually, over here, whisky came to be associated with Scotch and American whiskey became the preferred spelling for our own whiskey. I suspect, however, that a Brit will call whisky whisky regardless of where it is, unless a different spelling is part of the name of the liquor.

Try your own Ngram Viewer searches: Google Ngram Viewer


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