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Whisky or Whiskey

People often get confused as to the correct way of spelling whisky, or should it be whiskey?

The term 'whisky' is actually derived from the Gaelic word usquebaugh, which is itself taken from the Scottish Gaelic uisge beatha, or the Irish Gaelic spelling of uisce beatha. The word uisce comes from the Old Irish for 'water' and beatha from bethad, meaning 'of life'. Over the years, etymologists have linked whisky with a considerable number of spirits in the quest for the elusive elixir of life.

So what is the The elixir of life and what has it got to do with whisky?

The elixir of life, which is also known as the elixir of immortality, is a legendary or mythical potion, or drink, that is supposed to grant the drinker eternal life and possibly eternal youth. Many practitioners of alchemy pursued it. The elixir of life was also said to be able to create life. Some view whisky as such a pure and wonderfully pure creation that they have claimed it has elixir properties. Certainly in the Highlands of Scotland and in many parts of Ireland, many a hopefull fisherman has poured a libation of whisky into the trout or salmon stream prior to casting a line.

The distillation of whisky is often attributed, to the Arabs, who actually invented pure distillation during the 8th century. There has been distillation on the Indian subcontinent since about 500 BC, but the Arab and Persian chemists advanced it using a number of apparatus and techniques similar to those still in use today. The term alcohol can be credited directly to them, and first appeared in English in the 16th century. It was from the medical Latin and before that the Arabic al-kuhl, 'al' being the definitive article ('the') and 'kohl' being a powdered form of eyeliner, originally used as a preventative measure against what caused eye ailments. It was produced by drying sandalwood paste, of the juice of Indian devilwood, which is dried and left to burn over a lamp. Etymologists believe Kuhl dates back even further, from 'kahala', which means to stain or paint.

The modern definition for alcohol was first given in 1753 as the 'intoxicating ingredient in strong liquor'. Once again, the whisky along with many other spirited drinks became known as the elixir of life or aqua vitae as a way of describing the liquid as the water of life.

The first official documentation of Gaelic whisky was at about 1405 in the lost Irish chronicle, the Irish Annals of Clonmacnoise. In the chronicle there is a written record of the death of the chieftain, at Christmas time, after "taking a excess of aqua vitae". Scotland has its first record of this water of life in 1494 in the form of an entry in the Exchequer Rolls where the malt was sent to "Friar John Cor, by order of the king, to make aqua vitae". Usquebaurgh became whisky during the 12th Century, during an invasion of Ireland when King Henry II's soldiers corrupted the term.

The spelling of whisky, or whiskey, differs depending on where you are. As a general rule, the Americans and Irish prefer to use the spelling 'whiskey' and the Scottish, Canadians and the rest of the world's single malt makers tend to prefer 'whisky'. This appears to be the case since the 19th century. In 1870, Scotch whisky was generally considered to be of very low quality, much of it being distilled poorly in Coffey stills. Coffey stills were also called a continuous still, column still or patent still, were a variety of still consisting of two columns named after the Irish distiller Aeneas Coffey. The Irish distillers wanted to differentiate their product from the poor quality Scotch whisky when the exported their product to America, so they added the 'e' to make the distinction obvious. Scotch whisky today is one of the world's favourite spirits, but the spelling still differs from the Irish. In fact the Americans still spell their whiskey with an 'e', though legally it is spelt 'whisky'. There are some distillers that prefer to use the Scottish spelling of 'whisky', although this can easily be attributed to their Scottish ancestry.

Tak a wee dram afore ye go