Origin of the Term Bourbon

There's a lot of history and 'lore' behind bourbon so discuss both here.

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Re: Origin of the Term Bourbon

Unread postby gillmang » Fri Mar 27, 2009 12:35 pm

"Why, it's odd you say that, Sir, I grew up outside the French Quarter in New Orleans. I'm Scotch-Irish mostly with some Welsh, but one grandfather was French, his name was Sebastien Cabot - he was a noted actor in fact, made all the ladies swoon in his youth. He used to tell me stories of the old French days, he still had an accent when speaking English. He said the Bourbon Crown was the best ruler on the whole earth. He said there was culture in those times, the Bourbons gave money for the theatre companies grandpere worked for, they appreciated Art and quality in all spheres. He said today with "les Americains" it's all busines business business, no time for fun and yes they have good drinks and food but there's nothing like the old French brandywine, Cognac, which the Bourbon kings sent to the New World, now that is a drink sonny (he said to me) you could linger over and watch life unfold through the swinging doors of the hotels on Bourbon Street. Sweet and rich it was, almost like sugar, sonny. One day you will know, but you're too young now...".

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Re: Origin of the Term Bourbon

Unread postby cowdery » Sun Mar 29, 2009 10:56 pm

The first permanent European settlement in what is now Kentucky was established at Fort Harrod in 1774. Although it is not documented, it's likely that the first spirit distilled from corn in what is now Kentucky was made at Fort Harrod no later than 1776. We know that settlement of the region grew slowly at first and only really exploded after 1783 and the conclusion of the American Revolution. We also know that whiskey and hemp were Kentucky's two biggest exports by 1800.

Bourbon County was established in 1886. The truly most reasonable explanation for the whiskey's name is that by 1886, there was enough whiskey flowing south from Limestone, which was the principal Ohio River port, that it needed a name to distinguish it from other frontier whiskeys. When the region where that port was located got named Bourbon, the name stuck to the whiskey as well. The best explanation for why we don't often see it referred to as Bourbon County whiskey is because Limestone ceased to be in Bourbon County when Mason County was created in 1788. It was only, truly, Bourbon County whiskey for two years, but by then the name was already popular enough to be transformed into a brand name. All people remembered, and all that carried forward, was that it was named after the county, but the exact nature of the transmission was lost.

So if you want to believe Bourbon County had nothing to do with it, and you think corn whiskey from anywhere, once it got to New Orleans, reminded people of Bourbon Cane Sugar from Bourbon Island, be my guest, although I think all you can really take away from that story is that the name "Bourbon" was very common in those days, and it always was connected in some way to the Bourbon royals.

Remember, too, that the Bourbons were not just the French royal family. By the 18th century, members of the Bourbon dynasty also held thrones in Spain, Naples & Sicily, and Parma. Philip V was the first Bourbon ruler of Spain, from 1700. The Spanish Bourbons were overthrown and restored several times, reigning 1700-1808, 1813-1868, 1875-1931, and 1975 to the present day. So when New Orelans was Spanish, its sovereign was a Bourbon.

Bourbons still sit on the thrones of Spain and Luxembourg.
- Chuck Cowdery

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Re: Origin of the Term Bourbon

Unread postby gillmang » Mon Mar 30, 2009 6:30 am

In my last posting under the Louis-Philippe thread (and good to see there is some additional documentation of his visit to Bardstown) I indicated that if bourbon whiskey did not receive its name from Bourbon County, the fact of Bourbon County's existence would have lent a reinforcing aspect to the name. I did not mean this in the sense that the name came from both the County name and another source. Rather, I meant that people could mistake reasonably that the name bourbon came from Bourbon County, for two reasons. First, Limestone, now Maysville on the Ohio River, having once been in that County, was a shipping point for whiskey. Second, the County even as truncated did comprise numerous, respected distillers in its early years. So I haven't said the Bourbon County name has nothing to do with the name of bourbon and this would be true even if a left field theory like Bourbon cane - or Bourbon Street in New Orleans - was the true explanation.

The direct link of the Bourbon princes to American whiskey I mentioned is not a smoking gun of course but I regard it as significant. We are trying to interpret what is most probable from the available evidence. A rather striking anecdote, that Bourbon princes were drinking and travelling with American whiskey in or near its heartland to me provides the best indication so far of how the whiskey acquired its name. The Catholic connections to distilling, and French Royalist influence in Kentucky (and Louisiana) are certainly interesting and indeed, bourbon whiskey and Cognac bear some connections in palate and production style. This is all food for thought but I think the closest connections so far between whiskey and something called Bourbon are the best or most plausible places to look, namely: 1) Bourbon was once made in and sold from an area called Bourbon. 2) Whiskey was once purchased and consumed by visiting figures of the French branch of the House of Bourbon in 1797. Regarding the first connection, whiskey was shipped from Limestone when in Bourbon County, yes. Yet the first evidence of the name bourbon is the 1821 advertisement from the Western Citizen in Bourbon County. The 40-year or so gap seems hard to understand. Plus, why would an advertiser call a local product after the local geographical name, especially in those days when communities were relatively isolated and most consumable, hard-to-ship products were made locally anyway? One explanation might be that bourbon, being aged, was different than common whiskey, but in that case why not call it old whiskey? (A lot of the old ads did so in fact. One in 1826 is cited in the 1992 Kentucky Encyclopedia links I mentioned in another thread). If different types of whiskey were in the market in 1821 in Bourbon County, e.g., some from Monongahela, or Scotland, that might be a reason to call the local product by the County name. But was that the case? Also, whiskey surely was made in many areas outside Old Bourbon that was bourbon-like in style, although not shipped heavily of course from all those places whereas it was from Limestone/Maysville (yes). Elijah Craig is the best example perhaps of an early figure, associated closely with bourbon's development, who never having lived in any iteration of Bourbon County. I believe the same was true of Evan Williams of Louisville.

So we come back again to the two closest connections: the short period when Limestone was in Bourbon County and the anecdote of the travelling Princes drinking American whiskey in the late 1790's, an anecdote given historical significance (albeit partly comic) by an eye-witness to the event. The latter seems to me the more plausible explanation why the name bourbon stuck especially in its areas of production, not just in distant export markets. A trade name in an export market often is different than the local name, e.g., Chester cheese in France is Cheshire cheese in England. True, the Princes' connection has not previously been mentioned in the literature. One would think it would have been noted had it been the true explanation, e.g., by Hoskins in his 1859 book, or by various Kentucky historians. They all would have known of the Royal visit by the Duke of Orleans and his brothers in the 1790's. But maybe they missed it because the name caught on so early in a way not easily traceable and because of the "camouflage" of Bourbon County as proposed earlier.

I think more research, especially in local newspapers (was there one in Limestone, for example?) or merchants' records, between the 1770's and 1821 might point the way to the final answer.

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Re: Origin of the Term Bourbon

Unread postby delaware_phoenix » Tue Aug 31, 2010 3:18 pm

I was poking around the internet today, and found this link.

http://homepages.rootsweb.ancestry.com/ ... iskey.html

Seems to be a history of the Shawhan family going back to earliest settlers. Since specific names and places are given, these could be corroborated from historical records. Just an interesting tidbit of information. I'll leave it to Mike V and Chuck to wade through the details, separating fact from fiction. :D
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