Origin of the Term Bourbon

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

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Origin of the Term Bourbon

Unread postby gillmang » Wed Mar 18, 2009 4:24 am

Via Google Books, here is a link to What We Eat, an early investigation into food and drink composition:

http://books.google.com/books?id=RHxIo2 ... #PPA148,M1

The author is Thomas Hoskins, and he states that he is a long-time resident of Kentucky with knowledge of its whiskey-making traditions. This must be (1861) one of the very early references to bourbon which views the subject from the standpoint of its development and etymology. Hoskins states (see pp. 147-148) that the term derives from Bourbon County and he refers at one point to "Old Bourbon", seemingly to indicate, not that bourbon is typically aged, but that it is from an area that used to produce bourbon but no longer does because agriculture changed in the area. Thus, "Old Bourbon" would be the style of whiskey that used to be made in Bourbon County. Hoskins does not state that "Old Bourbon" was a larger area than it later became through county subdivision. However, it is not unreasonable to read or graft that onto what he states since that contraction is known from other sources and fits in general with what he is saying. The theory that the name Old Bourbon to describe a particular type of Kentucky whiskey referred to a larger part of Kentucky than Bourbon County occupies today (or in 1861), has been argued elsewhere, see e.g., Chuck Cowdery's bourbon book and other writings, and Hoskins' words seem good support.

In any case, his comments are very interesting about bourbon's origin. He focuses here, not on mashing techniques, but on distillation and malting. He suggests that Old Bourbon was made in small copper stills, which must have been pot stills in most cases, and that the grain used was "malted", which must have meant all-malted grains were used because he contrasts whiskey made in "immense iron stills" from unmalted grains. Even in large stills, some malted grains would have to have been used, so one can infer that his "copper whiskey" from small artisan stills was all-malted. Indeed I have read about moonshiner recipes which used all-malted corn although malting corn is not the easiest operation.

I think it can be seen that the original bourbon was different than what we know today. It was made in a copper alembic on a farm or on that scale. It was made in one of a number of sour mash methods, but the earliest may have been a simple procedure of using yeast from the previous ferment without keeping it in a jug under controlled conditions, and/or by using slop in the mash and letting air-borne yeast ferment it a la lambic beer in Belgium today.

None of these early references (that we have discussed on the board in the last few days) talk about charred barrel aging, perhaps they simply assumed the process. There is no question that Hoskins' Old Bourbon was aged: he refers e.g., to a purchase of bourbon from a small producer that is "seven years old". So that part of bourbon-making hasn't changed except that old-growth trees would have been used to fashion the barrels which today be unlikely I would think.

Distiller Samuel M'Harry writing in 1809, many years before Hoskins, never speaks of using all-malted grains, but rather of mixing barley malt with unmalted corn and rye (in various combinations). Thus, early on commercial distilling probably industrialised to the point of omitting use of all-malted grains. In Scotland, the best whiskey always was all-malt-based, however, and perhaps this was true in Ireland too although later the Irish style was to mix barley malt with unmalted grains. So perhaps we can infer that the choicest early bourbon was made from all-malted grains as Hoskins suggests, and later too in the U.S. the practice developed to use mostly unmalted grains, i.e., as commercial-scale distilling rose. (The practice of using malted rye did survive in various guises though as we know).

Thomas Hoskins, as early as 1861, essentially was exhibiting an antiquarian interest in the subject of bourbon whiskey, which is quite extraordinary I think.

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Re: Origin of the Term Bourbon

Unread postby gillmang » Wed Mar 18, 2009 10:39 am

Which bourbons today would approximate to some of those described in these early materials?

I am not sure that any do but some might come close. The Hudson Baby Bourbon from New Paltz, NY is an all-corn product albeit enzyme was used to convert the starches, not malted corn in whole or part or other malted grains. It is distilled evidently at a low proof in a hybrid pot and column still, which uses copper, so that part seems pretty authentic. The whiskey is young, but some young whiskey was sold we know off the still or a few months old in the early 1800's. All in all, I think the Baby Bourbon (and some of its variants later issued) might approximate to some of the common whiskeys available in the early 1800's.

The Woodstone Creek straight bourbon has a mixed mash bill, but we know some bourbon was made that way in the early 1800's. It is double-distilled in a true pot still. It is aged for more than 4 years in charred barrels. I am not sure what method was used to ferment the mash, I think Mike Veach has said a sweet mash was used due to the intermittent nature of production. Sweet mash whiskeys were certainly a sub-set of the bourbon world in the 1800's (see e.g., Atherton's well-known evidence to a Congressional Committee).

In one comment I found (possibly in Hoskins, I have to check again), the statement is made that fine artisan whiskey was not full of fusels because it was distilled at a low temperature. This is an interesting statement since it is often thought that an artisan whiskey product would be richly congeneric. This may not have always been the case, though. I am not sure we have yet seen an artisan, modern bourbon which has the "clean" character associated with commercial large-scale production. I have not forgotten about Woodford Reserve's pot still element, which can be tasted on its own in certain bottlings. However, to my taste, including the recent sweet mash iteration, it has a rather feisty grainy character even after multiple runs in the pots. It may be that this taste was characteristic of even well-matured "copper bourbon" in the mid-1880's, but I am not sure.

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Re: Origin of the Term Bourbon

Unread postby cowdery » Thu Mar 19, 2009 4:27 pm

My take on the name is almost entirely from Henry Crowgey's book, Kentucky Bourbon, the Early Years of Whiskeymaking. He reaches his conclusions mostly from an analysis of the term's appearance in newspaper advertisements, and cites several early instances in which "Old Bourbon whiskey" refers to an unaged spirit, leading him to conclude that the term originally was a reference to a region and not to aging. Crowgey does not, however, seem to have been aware of Hoskin's book, as it is not cited in his extensive bibliography.
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Re: Origin of the Term Bourbon

Unread postby gillmang » Thu Mar 19, 2009 6:37 pm

Thanks, and I think Hoskins bears him out. It is an odd coincidence of the term old, but we must accept it I think.

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Re: Origin of the Term Bourbon

Unread postby bourbonv » Thu Mar 19, 2009 6:55 pm

Gary,
There are no reference to the origin of the term "Bourbon" until the middle of the century. By that time there is a good part of marketing taking place creating the story. It is possible that "Bourbon Whiskey" was the term used to describe that aged whiskey drank on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Since Crowgey points out it is about 20 years into the 19th century before the term is found in a newspaper, that makes it unlikely that anyone really remembered what was "Old Bourbon County", let alone named a whiskey for it. By the time Kentucky became a state in 1792, Bourbon County was pretty close to what it is today. For someone to remember what it was before that time they would have had to be in the state for over 30 years. I am not convinced that they would be the ones talking about "Old Bourbon Whiskey".
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Re: Origin of the Term Bourbon

Unread postby gillmang » Thu Mar 19, 2009 8:43 pm

Good argument, Mike, and I recall too the one about a possibe borrowing of the French Bourbon name to convey the idea of a Cognac-like drink. All these are plausible. However, I incline I think to the Bourbon County explanation. Also, "Old" in Old Bourbon may in fact relate to aging of the whiskey, not the boundaries of the original Bourbon County. Aging after all is a hallmark of Bourbon whiskey. Maybe it didn't need to be aged that long in the old days to be called old and hence those ads Crowgey found for newish Old Bourbon.

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Re: Origin of the Term Bourbon

Unread postby cowdery » Fri Mar 20, 2009 12:50 am

Where Mike and I disagree is that I think it is equally plausible that the term "bourbon" was being used to identify the whiskey much earlier than 1820. There is no direct evidence but I believe you can reach that conclusion through deduction.

Bourbon County was severed from the port of Limestone in 1788. If downstream customers were calling the whiskey from Limestone bourbon by then, it would have behooved the whiskey brokers of Limestone to keep the word "bourbon" associated with the whiskey shipped from that port, and could very well have coined the expression "Old Bourbon" themselves, just as real estate interests created "West Lincoln Park" and "North Lincoln Park" when Lincoln Park became popular. That might have persisted for a decade or so, maybe even into the early 19th century, by which time the term referred only to the whiskey, but "Old" was not a reference to aging. It was, as we might say, like a brand name, devoid of actual meaning, but used to signify the corn-based whiskey characteristic of Northeastern and Central Kentucky.

Bourbon has to get its name from Bourbon County somehow, although the how can be debated. I don't believe any theory about a source not linked to Bourbon County, Kentucky, has merit.
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Re: Origin of the Term Bourbon

Unread postby gillmang » Fri Mar 20, 2009 2:14 am

I wonder if research more in the annals of Louisiana would help solve the problem. There, there might be ads, or correspondence, showing how the term came to be used. Clearly New Orleans was a shipping destination for bourbon (and Monongahela), both to drink there and for further shipping. The Limestone idea, that it became "old Bourbon" after ceasing to be in the County, is very interesting, it was common at the time for products to take a name from where they were shipped to market (Dover sole is a good example). Possibly the intermediaries who brokered and shipped whiskey hit on that term to promote it after an earlier period (presumably) when it was known as Bourbon. I found one source, mid-1800's, which refers to it as "whiskey-bourbon", which to me suggests the idea of geographical origin although the expressionis somewhat vague. I did find a Louisiana digitised newspaper site, which has possibilities in this area, but the searches are mde much harder by the fact of Bourbon Street being in New Orleans since that meaning always came up when I searched. You do fine interesting things, though, e.g., the old Sazerac Bar in New Orleans had been owned by Thomas C. Handy Company...

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Re: Origin of the Term Bourbon

Unread postby gillmang » Fri Mar 20, 2009 8:10 am

Look at this, from an 1845 book about New Orleans:

http://books.google.com/books?id=Y3dUBa ... S#PPA12,M1

Someone is served a hot whiskey toddy which clearly is made with bourbon. The drinker states (but not to his host) that he doesn't like it, he writes the whiskey tastes like "burned cork". The server tells him to "always char the cask for good whiskey" and that this is a "trick".

This brings the question in part at least back to Louisiana...

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Re: Origin of the Term Bourbon

Unread postby bourbonv » Fri Mar 20, 2009 9:32 am

If the 1820 newspaper advertisements read "Old Bourbon County Whiskey" I would be inclined to agree with Chuck, but the fact is even the earliest ones never mention Bourbon County. If bourbon was shortened from the term "Bourbon County Whiskey" then you would think some of the earliest advertisements would say that.

I agree with Gary that New orleans is the place to look for the next clue to the origin of "Bourbon". It is possible it was named for Bourbon Street. It is possible that it was named for the French royals as a counter to Napoleon Brandy. The fact is there is not enough information to say what the origin was.
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Re: Origin of the Term Bourbon - Kentucky or Kane Konnection?

Unread postby gillmang » Fri Mar 27, 2009 7:40 am

This aspect that Bourbon Whiskey is not and never was apparently marketed as Bourbon County Whiskey may indeed be significant. E.g., today one would speak of Nelson County's renown in the area of bourbon production. Not, Nelson's renown, which would have little meaning. We speak of the Lincoln County Process associated with Jack Daniels' famous whiskey, not the "Lincoln Process" even though, like Bourbon County, the present day Lincoln County does not encompass a distillery because, in part, its boundaries got smaller. This may point to the fact that "bourbon" in bourbon whiskey does not derive from Bourbon County even though I have read countless sources by now and numerous in the 19th century which say so, e.g., Hoskins' comments in 1859 to which I referred elsewhere.

Some have proposed earlier on this board that bourbon might be a reference to France, after the Royal Family. A similar reading might hold that Bourbon whiskey was the best whiskey because fit for a king. I believe the term Bourbon too was used at the time to mean generally a grandee, poo-bah who could have the best of what he wanted... The Cognac connections (i.e., the similarity to a point in both beverages) might have lingered as well behind such terminology, consciously or otherwise.

Or maybe there is a completely different source for the term, one still related to Louisiana (but not to a famous street in New Orleans), to which whiskey was shipped in large quantities. A lot came from Maysville, on the Ohio River, in (yes) Bourbon County. It is this fact including evidence of early distillation in Bourbon County that has led so many to conclude that the famed whiskey of Kentucky must have been named after that County.

Another State, Louisiana, also was famed for a no less well-appreciated product, sugar. One of the prime varieties of sugar grown in Louisiana was called Bourbon Cane. It made a sugar, dark brown, known as Bourbon sugar. Here is a period discussion of the sugar productions of Louisiana:

http://books.google.com/books?id=LfYoAA ... S#PPA57,M1

I could append 20 more which all state the same things, basically.

It seems as the ground got exhausted with intensive planting, this type of sugar became less important after 1850. The name Bourbon Cane comes from Bourbon Island, a place on the other side of the world where this cane variety was first grown. The seeds were brought to the West Indies, and then to America. Canes have different colours. Bourbon's was of two kinds, dark purplish or yellow.

Can Bourbon whiskey, a large amount of which was coming into New Orleans and would have jostled on the levees with Bourbon cane, coffee, pork and other commodities, have taken its name from this now-obscure variety of sugar cane? It might have done so either from the colour of the cane or the colour of the sugar - or both, possibly, since bourbon, unlike common (new) whiskey, can be yellow or dark brown. And, bourbon is a relatively sweet liquor, much more so than any liquor not aged in a new charred barrel. It is "rich" in the terminology of the French scientist Berthelet who was plumping for aging wines and spirits in new charred barrels around 1800.

I think this is possible, but at present it is speculation, I haven't found anything that links the two together. The case is merely "circumstantial", inferential, and not that strong. But stranger things have happened in the history of comestibles and their nomenclature.

Gary
Last edited by gillmang on Fri Mar 27, 2009 10:20 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Origin of the Term Bourbon

Unread postby bourbonv » Fri Mar 27, 2009 10:08 am

Gary,
Once again great job of research. The fact that the legend claims "Bourbon Whiskey" was shortened from "Bourbon County Whiskey", yet there was never advertisements for "Bourbon County Whiskey" has always bothered me. That is why I think the name was very much a designed thing to aid sales. As in modern advertisement, the marketers then created the "legend" behind the name. I think all of the things mentioned above may have played a role in calling the whiskey "Bourbon".
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Re: Origin of the Term Bourbon

Unread postby gillmang » Fri Mar 27, 2009 10:17 am

Thanks, Mike, and research hopefully one day can pin down the explanation. I would think one of the explanations discussed, maybe even Bourbon Street, might be the original spur for the name and the reason it "stuck" was that these other, fortuitous meanings of Bourbon reinforced in peoples' minds the aptness of the term. Hopefully in sales records or other sources though one day it can be determined what the immediate cause was for using the expression.

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Re: Origin of the Term Bourbon

Unread postby gillmang » Fri Mar 27, 2009 10:31 am

Conversation Overheard the Other Day In The Market in New Orleans (1815):

"Why Chas, Mike, I was on Bourbon Street last night meeting Mademoiselle Gelinas, you know the pretty brunette from the clan that owns that plantation on the river about 40 miles out of the city. I wouldn't say we're courtin' but I think she likes me and well, we'll see... Anyhow I felt like a whiskey and Pierre at the bar said we have this new brown whiskey in, from away up the rivers in Kentucky. It's a sweet drap of whiskey, but no sugar is added, he said, it comes that way from the barrel treatment it gets, or so the wine "courtier" - that's broker in French, gents - told him who supplied it. So I take a gulp and this whiskey goes down a treat I'll tell ya, sweet and spicy like brown sugar, like Bourbon sugar in fact, just like it! Next time I go in, I'm askin' again for that Bourbon whiskey. Miss Gelinas, she just had a sarsparilla, she says they only drink wine for special dinners out in the manor house. She said I could accompany her some time on a Sunday out there. Chas, what was the name of that tailor you mentioned last week when you wore that new cloak?".

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Re: Origin of the Term Bourbon

Unread postby bourbonv » Fri Mar 27, 2009 11:18 am

Very Good. You might add a little something appealing to their French Royalist pedigree as well since that may have also figured in to why the term "Bourbon" was chosen for the whiskey. Bourbon Whiskey instead of Napolean Cognac could be the drink of choice for French Americans who fled the revolution and lost fortunes in the process.
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