Whiskey History

Whiskey vs Whisky

“If you don’t know how to spell a word, I suggest you look it up in the dictionary”, is something one would hear often from a teacher while attending school. Now that technology has easily allowed us to eliminate the possibility of grammar errors, without the hassle of dusting off any books, we shouldn’t have any trouble. Although this burden has been relieved from us in the majority of literary circumstances, many debates still arise from the spelling of the beloved beverage “whiskey”.

Whiskey vs Whisky
Weller by Buffalo Trace

“Whisky or whiskey is a type of distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash. Various grains (which may be malted) are used for different varieties, including barley, corn, rye, and wheat. Whisky is typically aged in wooden casks, generally made of charred white oak. Whisky is a strictly regulated spirit worldwide with many classes and types. The typical unifying characteristics of the different classes and types are the fermentation of grains, distillation, and aging in wooden barrels”, is what wikipedia tells us. So which is it; ‘e’ or no ‘e’ (that is the question) and why? As always, an interesting historical footnote is the cause of this common confusion.

Research shows that, the anglicized form of the Gaelic phrase “Uisce beatha”, or “water of life”, is where the word “whiskey” originally stemmed from, (as Scotland and Ireland both possess a rich Celtic heritage). The Scottish spell it “whisky” and the Irish spell it “whiskey”. Irish immigrants brought the ‘e’ to the states in the 1700’s, resulting in American whiskies being referred to as “whiskey” ever since. According to the Whiskey Museum in Dublin, Ireland, the different spelling originally began as a marketing stunt, as an attempt to increase pricing.

So, are “whisky” and “whiskey” two different spellings of the same word/product- or are they two separate groups of spirits, spelled relatively the same? Generally, Scottish whiskies are distilled twice, while Irish whiskey is distilled three times – this process determines how “light” and “smooth” the finished product will be. In addition, the size and shape of the stills, that are used in the distillation process, tend to be different. In Ireland (and much of America), pot stills are used – producing a “softer” and “more rounded” spirit. In Scotland, distilleries use a wide variety of stills, allowing a wider range of flavors.

Despite the differences in a distiller’s method of production, there will always be similarities between the two. There will also be those who remain faithful to the ideology that there is true meaning, artistry, and culture behind the spirit’s grammar, Maker’s Mark being one of them. Maker’s Mark is one of the only American made whiskeys who choose to label their product, the “Scottish way”. Even though the company was eventually sold and is now owned by a Japanese company “Beam Suntory”, the family’s request to the spelling of whisky (without the ‘e’), still remains. As the world admires the sought-after label, it is fairly common that buyers are often misled while attempting to buy an American made whiskey, (especially those who are faithful to the notion that countries with an ‘e’ spell whiskey with an ‘e’). So, what could be more important than the presumption and expectations of a multitude of consumers? The answer is, something that cannot be bought: the heritage of the distiller.

Prohibition Era Medicinal Whiskey Whiskey History featured in Old Liquors Magazine

who writes for Old Liquors Magazine was kind enough to reach out for a short interview and include me in this very informative article he wrote named The Last Call – Tasting History with Pre-Prohibition Bourbon. Give it a read as I’m sure you will not be disappointed.

Prohibition Era Medicinal Whiskey Tastings Tales Whiskey History

Old Barbee Whiskey Tasting

After doing some of my typical Internet hunting I bring back to my whiskey tribe a beast of an article. Tom Eblen, from the Lexington Herald-Ledger, writes about cracking open his Old Barbee Whiskey and sharing it with longtime Wild Turkey master distiller Jimmy Russell. As it turns out, the bourbon came from the author, whose wife’s great-grandfather Herman Volkerding was president of the now long-gone Kentucky distillery that made it.

If you find Mr. Eblen’s article a great read then you will enjoy viewing my unopened Old Barbee Whiskey with the original box in the slideshow below. Notice the differences in the label when compared to the bottle pictured from the original article. Will I be opening mine and tasting it? Only if I find another one.

Read more here: Tom Eblen: Distilled in 1901, Old Barbee bourbon still smooth

Old Barbee Whiskey

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Distilled 1917 - Bottled 1930

Prohibition Era Medicinal Whiskey Whiskey History

Medicinal Whiskey Prescriptions

You know, it really doesn’t dawn on you that people could easily get whiskey during prohibition until you see the medicinal whiskey prescriptions and logs that were used during the time period. Meticulous records were required by the Treasury Department’s U.S. Prohibition Service similar to the FDA today.

Just as some of the bottles of whiskey from this era survived, so did the actual prescriptions. At the Rose Melnick Medical Museum you can view not only the prescription pad doctors used but also the prescription log book. Some of the entries in the book are fantastic examples of the kind of ailments you would have to have in order to procure the water of life. Influenza, acute pharyngitis (aka “sore throat”), bronchitis, and acute coryza (aka “the common cold”) are just a few. I highly recommend you view the original photos at the museum site as they are huge, high resolution gems.

Medicinal Whiskey Prescriptions Gallery

Official prescription tablet for medicinal alcohol, 1933

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Prohibition Era Medicinal Whiskey Tastings Tales

LA Whiskey Society Medicinal Whiskey Tasting

LAW Medicinal Whiskey Tasting

Have you ever wondered what a bottle of medicinal whiskey distilled nearly 100 years ago tastes like? Yeah, I’m sure you’re thinking what most people think. Ewww! Hasn’t that stuff turned by now? Well, in most cases, the answer is no. If the seal is intact, no sediment at the bottom, and only a bit of evaporation, you may be in for a treat. Unlike wine, when whiskey is bottled after aging for let’s say, 8 years, it remains an 8 year old whiskey for life if it has been stored in a cool dark place.

You don’t have to drink medicinal whiskey because LAW has done it for you

If you’re like me, you wouldn’t dare drink one unless you had a spare or two lying around and that usually isn’t the case. You see, I’m a collector and once the bottles are opened, they have zero value to me. So, rather than open that delicious looking bottle of Old Farm you found behind the walls while renovating, drop me a line so I can talk you out of it.

Our friends at the LA Whiskey Society have done us a favor and tasted some of the oldest and most interesting prohibition era medicinal whiskies you can find. While a few were stinkers, several charmed the palates off of the LAW tasters, which worries me they will pursue drinking more of them. Since I’m not going to open bottles in my collection, I’m happy that the tasters at LAW have done this so we don’t have to. For an incredibly interesting read, see the main article. For tasting notes, see the links below. Dates are distillation and bottling, respectively.