Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Why Spelling Matters.

We keep saying the spelling of whiskey doesn't matter, yet we keep writing about it at great length. So does it matter or not?

How one spells whiskey doesn't matter because that's all it is, a spelling difference. It is one word that may be spelled (or spelt, if you're British) in either of two different ways. The way one spells it tends to depend on where one lives. In good writing, about the only rule is pick a spelling and stick with it.

This is all very normal, as there are dozens of English words with more than one acceptable spelling, and that is how writers and editors handle it. As there tend to be American and British spellings (the British spellings being generally followed in all English-speaking countries except the USA), it's also good form to pick one or the other spelling family and stay consistently within it.

Therefore, if one uses color, maneuver and center, one should also use whiskey.

The problem is caused by people who refuse to follow logic and instead advocate a silly, awkward, inconsistently-applied, imaginary rule that says how you spell whiskey depends on the whiskey's country of origin, and when you are talking about all whiskey or whiskey generally, you have to use some really stupid and awkward formulation such as "whiskey and whisky" or the dreaded "whisk(e)y." You also have to violate the consistency rule by switching between spellings if your discussion spans several types.

Then you have the problem of a handful of American producers who label their products "whisky."

The reason all this matters is because the country-of-origin spelling rule leads people, a lot of people, to believe that the two spellings are actually two different words with different meanings. Then those people dream up all sorts of imaginary reasons for the split. They repeat imaginary tales about frugal Scots omitting the "e" to save ink.

Then it gets pernicious.

People falsely link the spelling to the type of still used, usually defaming American whiskey in the process. They imagine non-existent international laws designed to protect the integrity of the one true "whisky," as if the absence or presence of a solitary "e" is such a powerful thing.

Their reasoning is logical if a trifle obsessive. If there is such a rule, they figure, there has to be a reason for it, so they try to intuit what that reason might be.

It matters because it perpetuates the myth that single malt scotch isn't just a type of whiskey but is the only true whiskey, and must therefore be spelled "whisky." They actually believe that all lesser whiskeys are required to bear the "e" as a mark of Cain.

The Scotch Whisky Association (notice how I respect the chosen spelling of proper names) doesn't exactly say this, but they do contribute to the problem by insisting that their product always be spelled "whisky."

The question of bourbon whiskey versus Tennessee whiskey is related, but different. The awkwardness there is that a product must meet certain legal requirements to be called "bourbon whiskey" while the law is essentially silent as to the meaning of the term Tennessee whiskey. The producers of Tennessee whiskey (there are only two) define it as bourbon that goes through an additional step of charcoal filtering before aging. Many people mistakenly believe that this step disqualifies the product from being called bourbon. That question has never been reached and I, personally, consider the proposition dubious. The fact is that the producers of Tennessee whiskey simply prefer that term, as they think it makes their product distinctive.

There are now in place international treaties that prevent the importation into the United States of any foreign-made product purporting to be either bourbon whiskey or Tennessee whiskey. Could someone make Tennessee whiskey in Colorado? They could try, but I suspect the owners of Jack Daniel's and George Dickel would raise a mighty stink. They would argue that Tennessee whiskey describes both a style of whiskey and a place of origin. Presumably, if another producer wanted to open a distillery in Tennessee to make whiskey the same way Jack and George do, that would be okay.

As with the spelling of "whiskey," the problem here is that people imagine all sorts of reasons why Daniel's and Dickel cannot be called bourbon, all of which are false. If you tick off the rules for bourbon or, for that matter, straight bourbon, the Dickel and Daniel's products meet every single one.

That leaves another little issue. Why do I always spell Tennessee with a capital "T" but generally spell bourbon with a lower case "b"? Aren't they both place names? The best way I can explain it is that "Tennessee whiskey" still uses Tennessee as a place of origin while "bourbon whiskey" does not, as bourbon whiskey is not made in Bourbon County. Although the term has its root in a place name, it no longer is used as a place name when describing whiskey. A good way to think of it is that while "whiskey" and "whisky" are one word with two spellings, "Bourbon" and "bourbon" are two different words that happen to be spelled the same way, with one being a place name and the other not.

If you think this is a lot to write (and read) about something that isn't important, then don't read it, and certainly don't waste everybody's time by writing about how it's not important. This is one of those subjects about which a lot of nonsense is written. The true facts need to be on the record, and now they are.


Stacy Thomas said...

Chuck, another example of clear thinking and clear writing about a topic that seems to prompt a lot of baloney. I admired this clarity in your book, and enjoy it here.

Rob K said...

As I recall from the last time I looked at the rules, ATF would come down hard on anybody outside of Tennessee who labeled their whiskey as Tennessee whiskey. They could call it Tennessee-style whiskey, but not Tennessee whiskey.

Davin de Kergommeaux said...

Hi Chuck,

Of course it matters how one spells whisky. But the objective, as you so eloquently point out, is not to find a single “correct” spelling but to be consistent though there seem to be several definitions of consistent. I agree that the general rules of written English would have publishers use spellings of the country of publication or at least those most familiar to their readers. The NYT, which is read by a very different demographic than Malt Advocate should revert to its former stylebook if the intention is to respect rules of printed English. However, now that the editors have decided to pander to the self-styled Scotch experts, let them, as long as they remain consistent.

However, I do respect John Hansell’s decision to spell Scotch whisky without an e, not because he is “correct,” but because he has weighed the arguments and feels that is what his readers would prefer and so that becomes the Malt Advocate style. His readers are much more interested in whisky than the general readership of the NYT and more international as well.

The idea that whisky is different from (and somehow better than) whiskey is just so misinformed as to be bizarre. I wonder if it derives from a misreading of The Truth About Whisky, which was an Irish book that argued that only malt whisky was real whisky, and coincidently spelt whisky without an “e” as many Irish were wont to do at the time. (See comments to your I’m No Lincoln II post for details.) But trying to educate the deliberately anti-intellectual is an exercise in futility - pearls before swine so to speak. Even when they get it they won’t admit it. Better to use your talents to explain how passing thorough 40 feet of charcoal can make whisky taste sooty and that's a good thing when 1) soot tastes like coal oil, 2) there is carbon dust but very little if any soot in charcoal, 3) the action of charcoal is to remove flavour not add it, 4) Lincoln County charcoal is not fully combusted so includes areas of “red layer” and, 5) the wood used is maple, not oak.

I also wonder how some people have become so hyper-sensitive to so-called “correct” spellings that when they think they’ve found a rule want to ram it down everyone else’s throat. (I don’t mean you, I think you’re dead on.) What else would explain the popularity of spelling bees where children dutifully rhyme off approved spellings of archaeopteryx, archeologist, and archipelago but wouldn’t know one from the other if it ran up and bit them.

This is what I object to, because words and language are my other hobby: people who make up rules based on limited observation rather than thoughtful study, and then criticize others for not following them. I take your point, I do go on, and I hope you do not feel I am wasting your time, or your readers’, but if I say it doesn’t matter how others spell whisky as long as they pick a system and follow it, it’s because no matter how they spell it it’s exactly the same thing except for the spelling. And if you rejoin that spelling is important because it perpetuates the myth that one is better than the other then I can only support your using a single consistent spelling based on the country of publication. That’s what I do anyway though for a different reason. I always spell whisky without an ‘e’ (and ‘spelled’ without a ‘t’) except for effect or when I am writing about a brand that doesn’t. And your decision always to include an ‘e’ except for specific reasons is equally well-founded in the rules of printed American English (be consistent) and your interest, as a whisky writer, in demonstrating that whisky and whiskey are one and the same.

On Bourbon/bourbon I had heard, I don’t remember where, it was capitalized as the family name of the French royal family after whom the county was named, and that Bourbon was whisky shipped from a port in Bourbon County though not necessarily made there. And, if Tennessee whisky must be made in Tennessee must Virginia whisky be wholly made in Virginia and Welsh whisky in Wales?

Chuck, if I'm becoming tiresome and you decide not to post this, no hard feelings.


Chuck Cowdery said...

Dear Davin,

No criticism of you was intended. We are on the same page.