Wednesday, February 11, 2009

New York Times Buckles To Pressure From Scotch Snobs.

I'm no Lincoln.

In fact, I'm usually in the minority on most controversial issues, which is why I wasn't surprised to see John Hansell congratulating Eric Asimov because Asimov got his editors at the New York Times to let him spell whiskey without the "e" when he writes about scotch or Canadian whiskey.

Asimov writes a drinks column for the Times called The Pour. His piece about the spelling issue is here. The posted comments are worth reading too.

Asimov's jumping off point is that words and what they mean matter, but as one of the comment posters, named Dennis, points out, the issue isn't meaning, it's spelling. Then another poster, named Alex, disagrees with Dennis, wrongly asserting that "whiskey" and "whisky" are two different words with different meanings.

They are not.

Naturally, I had to weigh in on this, as follows:

Dennis is right and it matters because Alex, and many other people like him, mistakenly believe "whiskey" and "whisky" are "two different words with two distinct meanings" when they are not. They are just two of the many words (e.g., aging, center, color, maneuver) that our two great English-speaking nations spell differently.

My policy is that American publications should spell whiskey the American way, regardless of the type of whiskey being discussed. I would expect publications in Canada or the UK to do the same, favoring (or favouring) their spelling. (I wrote about this at greater length here.)

The exception would be that when stating the proper name of a specific product, the word will be spelled the way that producer spells it, and also be capitalized as befits a proper name (e.g., Johnnie Walker Scotch Whisky).

The extremists in this debate hold that 'whisky' describes single malt pot still spirit only. All other (and, in their view, lesser) wood-aged grain spirits take an 'e.' As a partisan of American whiskey, I believe that disrespects our unique whiskey-making tradition.

This issue usually can be relied upon to stir up a tempest in a tumbler, so let's have at it.


Crash said...

Excellent observation, Mr. Cowderey, as usual.

I, too, read John Hansell's comments and they made sense to me, but your comments are equally sensible.

What this means is, there is no "right" way to spell whiskey, only preferred ways.

I tend to stick to whichever spelling is on the spirit bottle that I'm getting my drink from.

mong said...

I disagree, Whisky and Whiskey do mean different things to me.

Being a Scot, I use the spelling whisky in very general terms, and when refering to our own and Canadian liquids, but when I refer to American or Irish whiskey, I spell it as such, but I am actually giving the liquid its due respect and acknowledging its heritage, rather than making a "whisky is better than whiskey" call there.

I think it's a little extreme to talk about it making an article unreadable, but it can take away a little from the enjoyment, as I can't help but mentally correct it.

When I talk about the bringing together of liquids from different barrels, I use the word blend, but when talking about Bourbons, I use the word mingle instead. Not because blend is the wrong word for me, but because it means something a bit different to the makers of Bourbon, and I feel I should respect that.


Frank said...

I think your assumption that "whiskey" implies a "lesser" product to the people who differentiate is incorrect, and as such is influencing your decision to assume that "whiskey" and "whisky" are the same thing. They're not, and Alex is correct. Whisky describes single malt scotch OR blended whisky coming entirely from other Scottish sources. Whiskey is reserved for all other sources of a similar spirit(i.e., outside of Scotland).

I'm not an extremist...I just think that the term "whisky" speaks to a very specific type of spirit, and "whiskey" says something entirely different. As George Carlin would say, it's just a word, and I'm not into preserving the spelling because I'm a whisky (or whiskey) snob. In fact, I like bourbon whiskey just as much as I enjoy a Scotch whisky. But it's clear the two different spellings mean two very different things.

Davin de Kergommeaux said...

Churk, I couldn’t agree with you more.

For some obscure reason, the spelling of whisky seems to be one of the first things whisky novices latch onto in their haste to demonstrate their whisky knowledge. Why, I don’t know, because in reality, there are two written languages that call themselves “English” – one in America and the other in the rest of the world. While these sound similar enough Americans have developed their own spellings, different from those used in England and the rest of the British Commonwealth (e.g. Scotland).

So Americans and Scots spell many words differently when referring to exactly the same thing. Americans write whiskey, for example, while the Scots, like English speakers from around the world who have been educated in the British system, write whisky.

As I’ve said elsewhere, an American automotive magazine wouldn’t dream of calling those round, black, rubber things on a car’s wheels “tyres” just because they were made in a Commonwealth country, “tires” if they were made in America, or “pneus” if they were made in France. No, in America they’d be tires no matter where they came from. Similarly you’d read about tyres in Britain and pneus in France whether the manufacturer was Goodyear, Dunlop, or Michelin. For whisky it is also most appropriate to use the language of the country of publication, whether that be France, Scotland or America, when a book or article is destined for that market. We can’t have one rule for “whisky” and another rule for every other word in the English language.

Because styles of English vary with geography, most books that are published globally have at least two different English editions, one with American spellings, the other using British spellings. For example, there are two English-language versions of Michael Jackson's Whisky, The Definitive Guide. In America it’s called Whiskey, The Definitive Guide, and all references to Scotch whiskey use the American spelling NOT the Scottish. In the American edition, Whiskey, Jackson says, “The word whiskey (spelled “whisky” in some countries) is of Celtic origin …”, but he uses “whiskey” throughout. Similarly, in America, Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible becomes a Whiskey Bible.

According to the Scotch Whiskey Order the “legal” spelling for Scotch is (or at least until very recently was) “whiskey”. In recent SWA consultation documents whisky is now always capitalized – “Whisky”. In America, the “legal” spelling is still “whisky”, without the “e”. according to the US Standards of Identity. This applies to Scotch whisky, Irish whisky, Bourbon whisky and every other whisky. But how to spell whisky really is a question better left to word experts so why not look at a word book, let’s say the Oxford Dictionary – the standard for English English, wherein we find: “Whisky n. (Ir., US whiskey) …..” So they’re exactly the same word but in Ireland and the USA it’s spelled “whiskey.”

But there is also a rule of printed English that says foreign words must be set in italics, so if America spells whiskey with an “e”, then to be correct, American publications should use Scotch whiskey with an “e” or set Scotch whisky in italics, to use the Scottish spelling.

American whisky makers have not felt the need collectively to choose between the two spellings, but it’s “whiskey” in American dictionaries and tends to be the same on their labels. But when some indignant, self-styled whisky expert states categorically that Americans spell whisky with an “e” just roll your eyes and point to a bottle of Early Times, Old Potrero, George Dickel or Maker’s Mark.

Same with Irish whisky. The fact is some regions of Ireland traditionally always spelled whisky without an e and you can still buy Irish whisky with the “whisky” spelling. It was very common for the Irish to use either spelling right up into the 1970's, and I believe the only reason they adopted a single spelling was because the remaining Irish distilleries had merged to form a single firm so you would expect a single spelling on their labels. But saying it’s always spelled with an e neither respects the liquid nor acknowledges its heritage.

But if it’s an American English problem, maybe we should check what the American word experts have to say. Webster’s, the most-used dictionary in America , defines “Scotch” thus: “whiskey distilled in Scotland esp. from malted barley – also called Scotch whisky (in italics).” Please note the “e” and the italics.

There is also a misconception that if there is an e in the name of a country they spell whiskey with an e. Fortunately, Penderyn Welsh whisky made in Wales and Macmyra Swedish whisky, made in Sweden have put this myth to bed as well. So let’s all take a deep breath and get back to tasting whisky!