Bourbon Whiskey: The Story Behind the Spirit

pouring whiskey in glass with iceThis story comes in two parts, the whisky and the bourbon. Let’s tackle the whisky first.  The word whisky is derived from uisge which is an abbreviation of uisgebaugh, pronounced whis-geh-BAW. This word comes from the Scottish Gaelic word that means “water of life.” Whisky is a type of distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash. Different grains are used to produce different types of whisky, including barley, corn, rye and wheat. Whisky is typically aged in wooden casks, generally made of charred white oak.

Much is made of the word’s two spellings: whisky and whiskey. One is that the difference is simply a matter of regional language convention, or the intended audience, such as color and colour, and the other depends on the style or origin of the spirit being produced. American writers used both spellings interchangeably until the introduction of newspaper style guides. Still today both are used on prominent American brands all made by different companies. 

Bourbon whiskey is a type of American whiskey: a charred barrel-aged distilled spirit that must be made with at least 51% corn…but that’s not why we call it bourbon! There are tons of “trail stories” trying to make their explanation fit, but the most comprehensive and factual seems to come from a gentleman named Michael Veach. As an associate curator of special collections at Louisville’s Filson Historical Society and a former archivist for United Distilleries, located in the heart of Kentucky Bourbon Country, Veach has spent decades studying bourbon history and is considered by local residents, and myself, to be the spirit’s unofficial ambassador. He is also the author of Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage. Let’s take his argument on where the name “bourbon” comes from:

If you visit any local distillery you’ll likely hear that all of this derives from Bourbon County–once part of a larger expanse known as Old Bourbon–in upstate Kentucky.  However, Veach says the timeline just doesn’t match up. For starters this county, and Bourbon Street, were named as such for one reason–to pay homage to France’s ruling family at the time, the House of Bourbon.

Though the Filson Historical Society is home to bourbon labels printed as early as the 1850s, he says, “the story that the name ‘bourbon’ comes from Bourbon County doesn’t even start appearing in print until the 1870s.” Veach believes the name evolved in New Orleans after two men known as the Tarascon brothers arrived to Louisville from south of Cognac, France. These brothers began an enterprise based on all things shipping, and began shipping local whiskey down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to Louisiana’s bustling port city. “They knew if Kentuckians put their whiskey into charred barrels they could sell it to New Orleans residents, who would like it because it tasted more like cognac or ‘French Brandy,’ says Veach.

New Orleans street signs at intersectionIn the 19th century, the entertainment district of New Orleans was Bourbon Street, as it is today. “People started asking for ‘that whiskey they sell on Bourbon Street,’ he says, “which eventually became ‘that bourbon whiskey.’”

Heather Burton, ABC Fine Wine & Spirits wine and spirits supervisor

Follow me on Twitter @abcwineheatherb

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