WHY IS AMERICAN WHISKEY CALLED BOURBON?
It’s one of whiskey’s great head-scratchers. How is it that the most emblematic whiskey of the United States--a whiskey synonymous with the rural South--has a name borrowed from French royalty?
AMERICAN SPIRIT, FRENCH ORIGINS
The origin of bourbon’s name remains, if not murky, perhaps just a tad cloudy. The word bourbon itself comes from the House of Bourbon, a famous French dynasty. Its connection to the American South nods to the region’s long-standing connection with France (Louisiana, after all, was once a French colony).
There are other connections, too. In 1785, a vast Virginia county spanning areas that are part of Kentucky today earned the name “Bourbon County” in gratitude for French assistance during the American Revolution. Today, that name lives on in Bourbon County, Kentucky--where, fittingly enough, the county seat is a town called Paris.
Despite its evocative name, bourbon historian Michael Veach thinks that the often-cited story that the whiskey’s name comes from Bourbon County, Kentucky, isn’t accurate. Instead, he suggests that “bourbon” actually refers to Bourbon Street in New Orleans. In the 1800s, much like today, Bourbon Street was a bar and restaurant hot spot, enticing revelers with concoctions like mint juleps and the og Sazerac (fun fact: it, like many classic whiskey cocktails, originally called for brandy.)
According to Veach, modern bourbon’s origins can actually be attributed to two French brothers who moved to Louisville, Kentucky, in the 19th century. They started shipping whiskey from Kentucky distillers down the Ohio River to New Orleans in charred oak barrels. By the time it arrived in New Orleans, it had started to develop that deep color and oaky flavor bourbon still boasts today.
“They knew that if Kentuckians put their whiskey into charred barrels, they could sell it to New Orleans’ residents, who would like it because it tastes more like Cognac,” Veach told Smithsonian Magazine. Bars and restaurants on Bourbon Street developed a reputation for this new kind of Kentucky whiskey, and drinkers eventually started asking for that “Bourbon Street whiskey.” Eventually, that became just “bourbon whiskey.”
Soon, early bourbon distillers like Jack Daniel, Elijah Craig, and Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor, Jr. (an early founder of Buffalo Trace) were taking advantage of the growing market for their distilled spirits in New Orleans, and farther afield. By the 1880s, bourbon whiskey was fully launched on its unstoppable trajectory.
While it’s undoubtedly the most famous American whiskey, bourbon is just one of something like 20 different defined categories of American whiskey. That list includes beloved standards like rye whiskey and Tennessee whiskey, plus oddballs like corn whiskey and light whiskey--plus, of course, world whiskies like Scotch, Irish, and Canadian.
One of the most exciting things about making bourbon today is the incredible variety. We’re pretty sure that there’s never been a better time to be a bourbon drinker. Or, for that matter, a bourbon blender.
When we started Barrell Craft Spirits, we were motivated by one thing: Make the very best whiskeys we could. Instead of starting by building a distillery, we decided to take advantage of the incredible diversity of bourbons and other whiskeys available today by blending, rather than distilling.
The results speak for themselves. We’re one of the most awarded bourbon brands of the decade, picking up accolades like Best American Whiskey of the Year, Best Small Batch Bourbon, and dozens of gold and double gold medals.
But we didn’t start a whiskey company to win awards. Our real goal is the same one shared by those French entrepreneurs in Louisville 170 years ago: Make spirits that people love. To us, that means cask strength bottlings, meticulous blends, and a mindset that melds experimentation with tradition.
We’re positive you’ll find a Barrell Bourbon that suits your palate, from the sweet, floral Barrell Bourbon New Year 2021 Limited Edition, to the richly spiced BCS Bourbon. Whatever you choose, pour yourself a taste (or mix yourself a Manhattan) and raise your glass to bourbon’s long history and bright future.