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Ask Paul: What is the Difference Between Whiskey and Whisky? and Rum and Rhum?

Do differently spelled liquors taste different?

Published Oct. 27, 2021.

MB. asked: Can you explain the difference between whiskey and whisky?

In all that discussion of various kinds of whisk(e)y, I ignored the fact that some whiskey has an “e” in it and some does not.

Here in the U.S., we spell the whiskey we make (including bourbon whiskey, rye whiskey, Tennessee whiskey, and others) with an “e”. Irish whiskey is spelled the same. But if you pick up a bottle of Scotch, or Japanese Suntory single malt, or Canada’s purple-bagged Crown Royal, you’ll notice it’s labeled “whisky” with no “e”.

These whiskies (that’s how you spell the plural) are all distilled from grain, just like American ones. They’re just spelled differently due to fanciful quirks of history.

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That was a quick answer. So, while we’re here:

Heidi asked: What’s the difference between rum and rhum?

You’ll sometimes see bottles labeled “rhum”: Is it just an affectation, like calling vodka “vhodka”? Is it a national spelling difference for the same thing, like whiskey and whisky?

“Rhum” is the French word for rum, but when it’s spelled that way on a bottle label, it refers to rhum agricole, “agricultural rum,” which is a particular type of the spirit.

Rum is a broad term, referring to liquors derived from the products of the sugar cane industry. When sugar cane is refined into sugar, the main by-product is molasses, and most familiar rums are made by fermenting molasses. An enormous variety of different rums can be made with molasses as a starting point, depending on the process used, the strains of yeast, the distillation method, and the aging.

But you can also make rum from freshly squeezed sugarcane juice, and if you do, you can call it rhum agricole, or rhum for short. It tends to have a more vegetal, herbal flavor than molasses-derived rum. (But things are never that easy: In Brazil, if you make the same sort of spirit, you call it “cachaça.”)

Ask Paul Adams, senior science research editor, about culinary ambiguities, terms of art, and useful distinctions:


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