“The question of how Kentucky’s beloved aged corn whiskey came to be called ‘bourbon’ has been the subject of much debate over the years. If you’ve read much at all about bourbon’s history, you’ve probably seen several contradictory explanations for the word’s origin.” One explanation is that bourbon is named after Bourbon County. “After Kentucky was admitted to the Union in 1792, the massive Bourbon County was subdivided several times, ultimately creating 33 much smaller counties, one of which retained the name Bourbon.”
In the 1820s, when people advertised “Bourbon whiskey” for sale, they were talking about whiskey from a specific county in Kentucky. When they say “Old Bourbon” they absolutely were talking about the age of the whiskey itself, not a historical qualifier for the region.
In August 1824, S. & H. P. Postlethwaite of Natchez advertised in the Mississippi State Gazette that they were offering for sale “100 Barrels Superior Bourbon County Whiskey.” In 1825, another Natchez newspaper, the Ariel, printed an ad for 200 barrels of superior “Bourbon county, Ky. Whiskey.” A year later, an ad in the same paper offered “50 Barrels Old Bourbon County Whiskey.”
-Robert F. MossAuthor of numerous books including Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South
There are other explanations for the origin of the word bourbon. In Bourbon Empire (2015), Reid Mitenbuler notes that New Orleans was the biggest market for Kentucky whiskey and suggests, “a name like ‘bourbon’ would have been a perfect marketing tool, appealing to the city’s large French-speaking population.” Mike Veach takes this line of thinking a step further in Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: an American Heritage (2013), speculating that the name might have come from “river travelers drinking the aged whiskey of New Orleans on Bourbon Street and starting to ask for that ‘Bourbon Street whiskey.’”
The real origin of the name bourbon is probably lost to history, but we do know this historical fact: Louisville and Bourbon county were named after the French House of Bourbon, in gratitude for Louis XVI of France's assistance during the American Revolutionary War. So drink up Kentucky, the world’s best liquor is named after parts of your State!
Joe's Older Than Dirt
The best whiskey bar in Louisville just got better. Joe’s is the home of the BIG Bourbon Club. Our monthly events will be hosted and streamed live from Joe’s.
AND, if you are a Top Shelf member, you get a 25% discount at Joe’s for EVERY item on the menu, booze or food, ALL THE TIME!