Bourbon has been in the news, with Maker’s Mark bizarre managerial decision to water down their product, and then reverse course after complaints.
This brought to mind an old bit of trivia: where does the name bourbon come from? This is old, because I’d tried (and failed) to figure this out a few years ago. This time I succeeded, but there’s a lot of threads to tie together.
Bourbon is a form of whiskey. Whiskey is one of the distilled spirits made from grain (a plant from the grass family, instead of other starchy plants like sugar cane, potatoes, rice, or sorghum).
Most whiskeys are defined by a recipe derived in some location: like Scotch, Irish Whiskey, Canadian Whiskey or Tennessee Whiskey. Others are named after the prime ingredient: rye.
But bourbon isn’t an ingredient (bourbon is primarily made from corn) or a place, is it?
It turns out that it’s kinda’ sorta’ a place, as bourbon, by law, is only made in Kentucky.
So, why bourbon?
Well, prior to independence, and in the early days of the republic, many states claimed unsettled land immediately to their west. At the time, when settlers moved west over the mountains, the were moving away from civilization but they weren’t officially leaving the state. In the case of Virginia, this over the mountains area was given county status in 1777, as Kentucky County, within the state of Virginia.
Some of this I kind of knew. But today, I hit upon the website of a town called Cynthiana, where someone has lovingly recorded all the details.
Here’s a contemporary map showing the counties in 1777 (sorry I didn’t choose their “clear” color scheme):
Kentucky County (on the far left) roughly corresponds with the eastern part of the current state of Kentucky.
A few years later, Kentucky County was broken into 3 counties:
Here’s a map from 1784 showing the area around where the 3 counties meet:
In the above map, Louisville would be near the center of the left edge, while Cincinnati would be near the center top edge. Virginia continued to subdivide counties, and created the original Bourbon County, as shown in this map of the counties in the late 1780’s:
Back in those days, distilling your corn harvest into liquor was one way to both preserve its value, as well as making it more readily transportable (adding to its value). Distilling came to America with the Scots-Irish, who settled heavily into Kentucky, and their liquor became known as bourbon (my guess is that most of the liquor that made it east over the mountains came from the easternmost county).
History moves in strange ways if the last royal family of France is remembered day to day in the corn whiskey made in Kentucky … 4K miles and 225 years apart.