Wednesday, December 2, 2009

An Alternate Theory on the Origin of the Term "Bourbon"

Why is called Bourbon called Bourbon?

The assumed information has always been that it was because the whiskey was primarily producer in Bourbon County, Kentucky. Even today, you'll meet people who insist that Bourbon can only be made in Bourbon County. That's not true and hasn't been for some time. What's more, there are actually no Bourbon distilleries inside the borders of the modern Bourbon County. That's partly because the Bourbon County of today is hardly the Bourbon County of yesteryear. The modern county is a farily dinky thing, where the old Bourbon took up geography now divided up by 34 counties. As Chuck Cowdery wrote in "Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey":

When American pioneers pushed west of the Allegheny Mountains following the American Revolution, the first counties they founded covered vast regions. One of these original, huge counties was Bourbon, established in 1785 and named after the French royal family. While this vast county was being carved into many smaller ones, early in the 19th century, many people continued to call the region Old Bourbon. Located within Old Bourbon was the principal Ohio River port from which whiskey and other products were shipped. "Old Bourbon" was stencilled on the barrels to indicate their port of origin. Old Bourbon whiskey was different because it was the first corn whiskey most people had ever tasted. In time, bourbon became the name for any corn-based whiskey.

Chris Morris, master distiller at Woodford Reserve, has come upon another theory as to Bourbon got it's name. Morris is a smart guy who does a lot of independent historical research out there in Kentucky. On a recent visit to Woodword, he caught my dear when he began talking about some siblings called the Tuscara Brothers, who controlled the flow of river traffic along the Ohio River back in the early 1800s. I couldn't gather the whole gist of his argument at the time, so I asked him to e-mail the basic theory to me:

Before 1803 travel/commerce west of Louisville was non-existent because Spain/France controlled the territory. Therefore barrels of whiskey were not being shipped down the Ohio River, nor east upriver and over the mountains. There were no barrels of whiskey (a general statement) because the whiskey tax (1791 - 1802) taxed spirit directly off the still - so it was sold and consumed immediately. Once the world changed in 1803 (Louisiana Purchase and tax repeal) distillers began to barrel whiskey for shipment west - ultimately to New Orleans and on to the East Coast markets. Every barrel of whiskey had to pass the Falls of the Ohio at Louisville (named for France's Bourbon King). Distilleries were located in many of Kentucky's original counties - among them Jefferson, Nelson, Woodford, Lincoln, Fayette and Bourbon. Barrels from each county ended up at the Falls, were transferred around the Falls, and loaded on new boats to travel west. So why did this unique Kentucky type of whiskey come to be called "Bourbon" instead of "Woodford", "Jefferson", etc? Simple - the Falls of the Ohio were controlled by a community of French ex-pats. A community of 300, called Shippingport (now part of western Louisville) controlled by the Tuscara (sic) Brothers. They were loyal to the then exiled House of Bourbon and chose the promote the name "Bourbon" out of a sense of French pride.

Jefferson, Nelson, Woodford, Lincoln, Fayette and Bourbon countries were indeed among the original Kentucky counties, all founded between 1780 and 1789. (Jefferson, Lincoln and Fayette were the original three counties.) I will take his word on the idea that distilleries were found in many of these counties; he's a precise man not given to comments that haven't been well thought out beforehand. Also, to give credit where credit is due, Morris say his info is a collaboration between Mike Veach of the Filson Historical Society and himself. The Filson has been collecting and preserving stories of Kentucky and Ohio Valley history and culture since 1884.

Could the Bourbon name simply be an example of French chauvinism? I'm no expert in Kentucky history. Anyone out there care to weigh in?

1 comment:

Doug Ford said...

Robert, it looks like French chauvinism either way, if the original County Bourbon was indeed named after the French royals.