Where Local and Global Appetites Collide

Sips & Shots: A Tale of Two Sours

Whisk(e)y Sours, that is–we’re up to ‘w’ in our travel through the Alphahol and that means delving into the oak barrels and coming up with what exactly?

I may have mentioned before that I’m not a big whisk(e)y fan. Until very recently I couldn’t stand the stuff and wouldn’t drink anything made with it thanks to an unfortunate encounter at a wine and spirits tasting. The bourbon I was served burned my throat, robbed me of breath and made my eyes water–it probably didn’t help that I’d been drinking a lot of sweet wines prior, but the port I tried afterwards smoothed things over between me and the wine guy. At any rate, I’ve come to respect well-made whisk(e)ys.

To ‘e’ or not to ‘e’, what’s in a spelling?

Ever wonder what the difference between whisky and whiskey is? At first I thought it was just an American versus European style thing but that’s not it because Irish varieties are spelled with the ‘e’ but Scotch without. True, most people who mean Scotch just say Scotch, but it’s still whisky so it counts. In North America, Tennessee, Kentucky and the other USA varieties add the ‘e’ while Canadian whisky does not. Other than who uses it and who doesn’t, there’s really not much more to it.

So What’s the Real Difference?

Whiskey is pretty much any grain spirit that’s aged in oak for as much time as needed to develop the flavors or scents necessary to be a pleasant drink. The type of grain makes a big difference in the finished product, also how it’s treated. Scotch is traditionally prized in the Single Malt category, made only with malted barley whereas Bourbon uses primarily corn and, in the case of Sour Mash, reserves a portion of the previous fermentation to add to the next batch in a method that reminds me, in turns, of sourdough starter and the Amish Friendship Bread that gets passed around from time to time.

(This, of course, is gross over-simplification. I’m just trying to distill it into a highlight reel for the sake of an overview.)

Mixing With It

So, probably the most common Whiskey drink most folks think of is the Whiskey Sour which, as I understand it, is generally made with Bourbon. Well, here’s the thing: you can make a Sour out of pretty much any base liquor so I decided to make a Scotch Sour and a Bourbon Sour and see how they compared.

Whiskey Sour

1.5 oz Whisk(e)y
1 oz Simple syrup
3/4 oz Lemon juice (as fresh as possible)

Combine over ice and shake vigorously. Strain into a chilled old fashioned glass and garnish with an orange slice and a cherry (also known as a flag).

Both the Bourbon and Scotch sours were made in exactly the same way and here’s how, for me, they compared. Visually, the Bourbon Sour is darker than the Scotch Sour–no worries about labeling the glasses for this test. The Bourbon also has a stronger smell (I used Jim Bean Kentucky Sour Mash Bourbon) and, as one would expect, a stronger flavor. More insistent. The Scotch Sour (made with Glenfiddich Single Malt 12 Year) was lighter in color and smoother in flavor, it took both the sweet and the sour in stride and retained it’s crisp pear notes (seriously, before last month I would have NEVER thought to think pears when I thought Scotch).

Obviously I preferred the Glenfiddich Sour, it’s much more palatable. I think I’ll keep the Sour Mash for the Bourbon Chicken.

Jennifer Walker
Jennifer Walker

  1. Hi Jennifer,

    Explanations about why whisky is spelled as it is (whisky versus whiskey) make up one of the most common myths about whisky. Why? Because they are so difficult to refute without a fair bit of research. So, mischievous people, wishing to appear knowledgeable, have just made up explanations and these have, over time, become the perceived wisdom on the subject. So I am glad you raised the subject but chose not to tell us which is correct.

    The Irish did not, as some would have us believe, add an e to whisky to differentiate themselves from the Scots because they (the Irish) thought their whisky was superior to Scotch. This never happened, and when there were hundreds of distilleries in Ireland both spellings were very common. Later, when whisky distilling went through difficult times and almost every distillery went bankrupt, the three remaining distilleries merged to form a single entity and adopted a single spelling. There is no evidence that the spelling with the e was chosen for any particular reason. However, there are still plenty of full bottles of Irish whisky around with labels that use whisky without the e.

    Legally, Scotch whiskey is spelled with an e – whiskey, but you never see this on the labels. Editorial decisions of the New York Times notwithstanding, and despite the certain indignant outcry from self-styled experts who have accepted, uncritically, the above-noted perceived wisdom, American writers who write about Scotch whiskey are just as correct as those who drop the e.

    As you undoubtedly are already aware there are at least five popular brands of whisky made and sold in the USA which use the whisky rather than the whiskey spelling on their labels. As well, there is absolutely no truth in the commonly-used argument that Americans use the e spelling because of a predominantly Irish heritage. First, that heritage is greatly exaggerated, second, the famed Scotch-Irish (Scots-Irish) were in fact Scots who spent a couple of generations in Ireland then came to America, but they were Scots, not Irishmen, third, the almost-exclusive use of the e spelling in Ireland did not happen until the 1970’s, way too late to influence American spellings.

    Similarly, the supposition that Canada uses the whisky spelling because of a Scottish heritage is refuted by the fact that both spellings have been used by Canadian whisky makers, bottlers and distillers. In Canada, we now seem to have settled on the no-e spelling but I can assure you this was not always the case. At least into the 1960’s and probably much more recently than that we have used both spellings on our labels, and we still use both spellings in the press.

    I am not sure why this topic fascinates me so much. Here is an article I published a couple of years ago on the maltmaniacs web-site.


    I have since done considerably more research on the matter and am more certain than ever of my position that either spelling is correct in any country (or more precisely that neither spelling is incorrect in any country), have more examples of whiskies, whisky-makers, distilleries and writers who seemingly are unaware of there being any distinction, and more photos of bottles with labels sporting a spelling perceived wisdom would deem incorrect.

    Now did you ever think a playful romp through the Alphahol would bring such a long-winded response? All in good spirits I hope.


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