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Why do you sometimes refer to American whiskey as ‘whisky’?

The question

Why do you sometimes refer to American whiskey as "whisky"? It is my understanding that only product made in Scotland can use the word whisky and that, after a court verdict, the rest of the world had to use word whiskey.

The answer

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I get this sort of question a lot and I'm glad to state my defence.

Some whisky lovers are passionate about spelling, at least where their beloved spirit is concerned. They will insist that any reference to American whisky ought to be spelled with an "e." Let me start by correcting your impression. I'm unaware of any international court ruling or treaty that requires distillers – or at least journalists – to use either spelling. And certainly Scotland does not hold a monopoly on "whisky."

Canadian distillers – all of them, to my knowledge – use "whisky." In fact, that's the convention in pretty much every whisky-producing country (including New Zealand, Australia and Japan), with the notable exceptions of Ireland and the United States, where "whiskey" is the norm.

The word whisky (or whiskey) is a generic term used to describe a grain-based spirit aged in wood. Here at The Globe and Mail, our official style guide requires writers to employ the Canadian spelling unless the word is part of a brand name. So, for example, I would write "Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey," but if I were referring to U.S. spirits in a general sense, I would write "Americans make very fine whisky," not "very fine whiskey." It's worth noting that U.S. newspapers tend to follow similar logic when they refer to Canadian whisky as "whiskey." They're not wrong; they're just spelling things the American way and entitled to do so.

We follow the same logic when referring to other generic nouns that are spelled differently in various countries. For example: centre (that's the Canadian spelling) compared with center (American). In the pages of The Globe, we would write "the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention" when referring to the official government body but we would reverse the "er" when saying "Obama is the centre of attention." The mere fact that President Barack Obama's policies are crafted in the United States does not impose American spelling on the rest of the world.

I can still hear certain people objecting, because some readers believe that whisky/whiskey culture should trump national spelling conventions. So, let me dwell on this for two more short paragraphs to underscore the wisdom and, I dare say, necessity of The Globe's logic.

Consider the plural form. For "whisky," it's "whiskies;" whereas for "whiskey," it's "whiskeys." So, how should a Canadian spell the word when referring generically to both Canadian and American spirits? Should I write, for example, "I love Canadian and American whiskies?" Or should I write "I love Canadian and American whiskeys?" Both sentences are problematic to those who would insist on "whiskies" for Canadian and "whiskeys" for American.

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Ultimately, one is forced to choose a style in order to preserve consistency, and in Canada that means choosing "whisky" because that's how we spell the generic noun in this country.

Sorry for the technical dissertation, but you did ask. I don't know about you, but I could use a shot of Canadian or American whisky right now.

E-mail your wine and spirits questions to Beppi Crosariol. Look for answers to select questions to appear in the Wine & Spirits newsletter and on The Globe and Mail website.

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