How Bourbon Whiskey Really Got
Its Famous Name.

by Charles K. Cowdery

Admittedly, 'bourbon' is a strange name for a type of whiskey, especially when you consider that most of the world's whiskey styles have admirably straightforward appellations. The whisky made in Scotland by Scots is called scotch, the whiskeys made in Ireland and Canada are called Irish and Canadian respectively. Even bourbon's closest relations, Tennessee Whiskey and rye, frankly describe either their state of origin or principal ingredient, both completely logical approaches.

So why is America's best known and most popular whiskey style called bourbon, a name borrowed from French royalty? The French, after all, don't even make whiskey or any other significant grain-based spirit, preferring to mess around with grapes instead.

Most writers who mention bourbon try to unravel this puzzle and they almost always get it wrong. Here is a typical example, from Alexis Lichine's New Encyclopedia of Wines & Spirits:

"Early in the colonial history of America, a Baptist minister, Elijah Craig, established a still in Georgetown, Kentucky and began producing whiskey from a base of corn. The still is said to have been one of the first in Kentucky and customers in neighboring towns christened his product Bourbon County Whiskey, from the county of origin."

That is a nice, succinct explanation and you have probably read it many times in different places, with only minor variations. So as not to pick only on Lichine, whose book is still one of the best reference works ever produced for beverage alcohol lovers, here is another example, from A Concise Encyclopedia of Gastronomy, by Andre L. Simon:

"The name is due to the fact that the first whisky distilled in Kentucky was obtained from ground maize at the mill of one Elijah Craig, in Georgetown, Bourbon County. It was called Bourbon County Whisky at first, and the name Bourbon Whisky has been used ever since for whisky distilled wholly or chiefly from maize."

Even Robert A. Powell, author of a history text used in Kentucky's public schools, repeats this standard but inaccurate explanation. Under 'Bourbon County' in his book 120 Kentucky Counties Powell asserts:

"The same name was later given to a pioneer product, Kentucky's famous 'bourbon' whiskey, which was first distilled in this county."

There is one small problem with all of these explanations. They are quite wrong, or at least not quite right. Because they have been repeated so many times over the years, it never even occurs to anyone to doubt them. Few people in Kentucky, even in the distilling industry, know the true explanation, although it is neither obscure nor difficult to understand. It is, however, slightly more complicated than the standard, but mistaken, tale. Here it is.

First, let's get the whole Elijah Craig business out of the way. The durable claim that Elijah Craig, a Baptist minister, made the first bourbon whiskey can be traced to Richard Collins, whose History of Kentucky was published in 1874. Collins does not identify Craig by name, but writes that "the first Bourbon Whiskey was made in 1789, at Georgetown, at the fulling mill at the Royal spring." This claim is included, without elaboration, on a densely-packed page of short statements under the heading 'Kentucky firsts.' Collins does not attempt to substantiate the claim nor has any evidence ever been produced to support it.

Craig was a real person -- a major character in early Kentucky history -- and he was a distiller. He also operated a fulling mill at the Royal spring in 1789, so there is little doubt that Collins intended to attribute this milestone to Craig. What is lacking is any evidence that Craig's whiskey was unique in its day, that it alone had somehow been elevated from the raw, green distillate made throughout the frontier to the status of 'bourbon whiskey' as we know it today.

In addition to a lack of any evidence to support the Collins claim, which was made almost 100 years after the fact, there is another, more significant problem. Craig's distilling operation was never in Bourbon County, even with the shifting of county boundaries that took place during Kentucky's early history. Craig didn't move, but the boundaries did as new, smaller counties were created from older and larger ones. Craig's site was first in Fayette County (1780), then Woodford (1788), then Scott (1792), but never in Bourbon County.

In Elijah Craig's day, making whiskey was something that everyone did. It was universally viewed as an economic necessity and a personal one as well. It was only much later, in Collins' day, that making and consuming whiskey became controversial. Collins himself sympathized with the prohibitionists who would eventually outlaw whiskey, but distillers and their supporters were quick to embrace his notion that bourbon was 'invented' by a respected Baptist preacher!

The Reverend Craig never distilled in Bourbon County, nor was the most-likely first distillery in Kentucky located there. That honor belongs to Fort Harrod, the first permanent European settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains and, like the Craig site, Fort Harrod (now the town of Harrodsburg, in Mercer County) was never in Bourbon County.

Why do I say that the first whiskey made in Kentucky from corn was probably made at Fort Harrod? Since whiskey-making on the frontier was as common as baking bread, it is almost certain that the first batch was cooked as soon as there was enough corn, which means it probably happened within a year of the settlement's establishment in June of 1774. At that time, there was no Bourbon County. Fort Harrod was originally in Lincoln County, until Mercer was formed in 1785. It was never in Bourbon County.

So what, you may ask, is going on here? Yes, there is a Bourbon County and, yes, bourbon whiskey did get its name through its connection with Bourbon County. But that connection is not what everyone thinks it is.

The whole area of what is now Kentucky was originally the Kentucky District of Virginia. Because America was grateful to France for helping us defeat England and win our independence, the Virginia legislature dropped a number of French names onto American soil.

When Virginia began to carve Kentucky into smaller units in 1780, it chose the name of a famous French general, LaFayette, for one of the three new counties it created. The French royal family in those days was the House of Bourbon and Bourbon County, Virginia, was established in 1785 by slicing off a piece of Fayette Country. This brought the number of counties in the vast western territory to five.

Kentucky was admitted to the union in its own right in 1792 and the new legislature quickly carved what had by then become nine counties into many more. By 1800, there were 43 counties and the map of eastern Kentucky looked pretty much like it does today.

Finishing up the French connection, we should note that the towns of Louisville and Versailles were also named during this fit of Francophilia. Of course, the Bourbon family really got its payback a few years later when the French Revolution, inspired by our Revolution, overthrew the monarchy and separated a great many Bourbon heads from their torsos. That's gratitude for you.

But back to our story. By the time Bourbon County was formed in 1785, there were dozens if not hundreds of small farmer-distillers making whiskey throughout the region. In those days, with few roads and even fewer local markets for farm products, the only practical way for farmers to sell their corn crop was by first distilling it into whiskey. If they did not have a still, they found a neighbor who did and traded some percentage of the output in payment for the distilling services.

Along with Kentucky's other main export product, hemp, surplus whiskey was loaded onto flatboats and shipped via the Ohio River to New Orleans for sale.

One of the first important Ohio River ports in Kentucky was at Maysville, which was then called Limestone. This port was already in use by 1784 when the Virginia legislature assigned "two naval officers or collectors" to the Falls of Ohio (now Louisville) and the "mouth of Limestone" (now Maysville) to supervise river traffic and collect tolls.

Bourbon County, which included the port at Limestone, was established the next year. The new county encompassed a vast region. It included virtually all of modern Kentucky to the north, east and southeast of Lexington. Limestone was the preeminent port for the whole region. Only a few years later, in 1789, Limestone and the rest of northeastern Bourbon County became Mason County, Virginia. Maysville is still the county seat of Mason County, Kentucky, today. After Kentucky became a state in 1792, many more new counties were carved from the original area known as Bourbon County and Bourbon County itself shrunk to its current modest size. In fact, thirty-four modern Kentucky counties were once part of Bourbon.

Because of that common heritage, the entire region continued to be known popularly for several decades as "Old Bourbon." During this same period, whiskey became the region's most important export. Because most people living there still called the whole region 'Old Bourbon,' any whiskey shipped from Limestone was invariably advertised and identified on barrelheads as 'Old Bourbon Whiskey,' no matter where it was actually made. Everyone at the time understood this name as simply identifying where the whiskey originated generally, i.e., somewhere in the region known as 'Old Bourbon.' More specifically, it meant any whiskey shipped to market from the famous port of 'Old Bourbon' at Limestone.

Eventually, this habit of referring to the whole region as 'Old Bourbon' died out and people unfamiliar with the practice began to assume that the word 'old' in the phrase 'Old Bourbon Whiskey' must have referred to the age of the spirit. It never did. In fact, the routine aging of whiskey was still several decades in the future.

Apparently, of all the whiskey floating down the Ohio from different frontier sources, the stuff labeled 'Old Bourbon' was considered the best by customers downstream. They liked it so much, they began to ask for it by name.

Recognizing a good thing and showing the initiative that has made American marketing what it is today, other whiskey producers in other parts of Kentucky and adjacent states simply appropriated the name. They began to label their barrels 'Old Bourbon Whiskey' too, no matter where their whiskey was actually made.

Eventually (after about 1840), the name became simply 'bourbon' and was no longer used to identify a place of origin, since by then just about everybody in the West called their whiskey 'bourbon.' Ultimately, most of the corn-based whiskey made west of the Alleghenies was called 'bourbon,' to distinguish it from the rye-based whiskey that predominated in the East.

Later, when people began to wonder where the name bourbon originated, they noticed that there was a county in Kentucky named Bourbon and assumed that bourbon whiskey must have originated there. It was many years later that distillers in Tennessee decided they wanted their own distinctive identity, so the name 'Tennessee Whiskey' was born.

Today, 'bourbon' has a specific legal meaning that has little to do with its geographic origins. That definition, now enshrined in federal law, has existed in its present form only since about the end of the 19th century. According to federal law, bourbon must be at least 51% corn, distilled at less than 160 proof, and aged for at least two years in new, charred oak barrels. (There are some other requirements, but those are the main ones.) Bourbon also must be made within the United States. In other words, a foreign product that meets all of the other requirements still can not be sold in the U.S. as bourbon.

Contrary to popular belief, there has never been a legal requirement that bourbon be made in Kentucky, which is why most Kentucky producers call their product 'Kentucky Bourbon.' Today there are very few examples of non-Kentucky bourbon left, but Virginia Gentleman is one.

That is the real explanation for how bourbon got its name. I don't claim to have discovered it. Henry Crowgey explains it pretty much this way in his book Kentucky Bourbon; The Early Years of Whiskeymaking (The University Press of Kentucky, 1971).

So what about all those 'standard' but wrong explanations? No one will want to replace the pithy but inaccurate statements above with the long explanation you just read, but they should be replaced, so here is my proposed, shortened version of "How Bourbon Got Its Name":

"When American pioneers pushed west of the Allegheny Mountains following the 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 to market. 'Old Bourbon' was stenciled 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, and they liked it. In time, 'bourbon' became the name for any corn-based whiskey."

Reprinted from The Bourbon Country Reader, Volume 3, Number 1, July 1996

Copyright 1996, Charles Kendrick Cowdery, All Rights Reserved.