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Why is Bourbon Called Bourbon?

Posted by Colonel Bourbon on

Why is bourbon called bourbon? Where does the name come from?

We know the first part of the story. The second part of the story is less clear; it's mysterious, and probably intentionally so. Myth helps to build legends and brands.

France -- the first part of the story 

France helped the American colonies in the fight against the British for independence. To express gratitude, Americans added bourbon to their geography throughout the country, like Bourbon County, Kentucky. (PS, that's not necessarily the answer.)

Here's a clip of the curmudgeon founding father John Adams, played by Paul Giamatti in the HBO miniseries, explaining to his French hosts how his generation must first study politics and war, so that his children can learn navigation, commerce, and agriculture, so that their children,  will have the right to enjoy the finer arts:


The word bourbon comes from the House of  Bourbon, a Dynasty in France. Here is the coat of arms:

 Why is Bourbon Called Bourbon?

 (House of Bourbon, Grand Royal Coat of Arms, Wikipedia Creative Commons, Louis de Lauban. )

As per Wikipedia, "Bourbon kings first ruled France and Navarre in the 16th century. By the 18th century, members of the Spanish Bourbon dynasty held thrones in Spain, Naples, Sicily, and Parma. Spain and Luxembourg have monarchs of the House of Bourbon."

So the name bourbon is of French origin, but how did the American whiskey inherit the name?

Many have attributed it to Bourbon Country, Kentucky, where the limestone water and hot-cold weather make the land perfect to distill the juice. Most bourbon comes from Kentucky.

But it's not a settled question: The bourbon name, like the corn used (the bourbon mash bill must be at least 51% corn) has been plentiful throughout the new world.

Kansas has a Bourbon County, Indiana has a town named Bourbon, Missouri has two.

Barrels aged, transported down rivers to New Orleans, a city with a rich French history, and of course a street named Bourbon.

In fact, bourbon historian and steward Michael Veach believes the name did orignate in New Orleans:

"Two men known as the Tarascon brothers arrived to Louisville from south of Cognac, France, and began shipping local whiskey down the Ohio River to Louisiana’s bustling port city. “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 or ‘French brandy’"

This is why bourbon is uniquely American; it has a history built on the tapestry of the nation, with the mystery and myth adding to the flavor profile, if you will.

It was first called bourbon in the mid 1820s, but the name wasn't widely used until the 1850s 

In the late 1800s, all manner of pours were being labeled bourbon whiskey. Some of it as bad as you can imagine, like maybe tobacco-colored unaged white lighting. There was no regard for the integrity of aging in charred new oak barrels, much less any other kind of quality control.

Colonel Edmund H. Taylor was a banker who got into the whiskey business, and is now considered by many to be a father of the modern bourbon business. His great uncle, Zachary Taylor, would become President of the United States.

Colonel Edmund H. Taylor Jr. Bottled in Bond Act

(Pictured: Colonel Edmund H. Taylor Jr. Public domain.)

Taylor brought quality control to bourbon whiskey, and his legacy is in most of the bottles made today. As per Buffalo Trace, which produces Old Taylor these days:

"Among his innovations were copper fermentation tanks, state-of-the-art grain equipment, column stills, modernized buildings, a more efficient sour mash technique and a first-of-its-kind steam heating system still used in the barrel warehouses today."

 Bottled in Bond Act of 1897

Problem was, he was the exception. Most distillers continued to make subpar product. Further, they were using the Taylor name, at a time when trademarks were not well respected.

Taylor had the quality of his bourbon to protect, so he lobbied for the Bottled in Bond Act. It basically meant the US Government would guarantee the quality of the whiskey. In exchange for this seal of approval and tax breaks, Bottled in Bond whiskey had to be:

  •  The product of one season from one distiller at one distillery.
  • Aged in a federally-bonded warehouse for at least four years
  • At 100 (US) proof
  • Manufacturer had to be identified on the label

Brands today that use these specs include Evan Williams, Old Grand-Dad, and Very Old Barton.

This didn't stop the manufacturing of bad, even dangerous whiskey. Others continued to make their swill, and many of these were the largest distributors of the day. It would take the muchracking of the early 1900s to bring regulations in food, drugs, and other industries.

Taylor passed away in 1923, having served as mayor of Frankfort, Kentucky for 16 years.

All bourbon must be made in the United States 

There is one other historical point to mention about the name bourbon, and it's an important one. In 1964, U.S. Congress passed a resolution that declared "Bourbon Whiskey is a Distinctive Product of the United States." Much like champagne today, which must originate from that region in France, bourbon can only be called bourbon if it came from the U.S., a rule enforced in trade agreements, etc.

At the time, the alcohol industry lobbied for the resolution in order to help sales overseas, and to keep international competitors out of the market. What was a rather procedural vote has since taken on mythic proportions: the resolution is like the Declaration of Independence in the bourbon world. In fact, that is exactly what the president of the Kentucky Distillers Association called it, when the trade group was loaned the  document from the National Archives.

Bourbon -- the spirit and its name -- is a rich, fascinating history. Cheers.

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