How Did Bourbon Get Its Name?
One of the great mysteries in the world of whiskey. Hear the the background on two possible theories.
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In this modern world of brands and brand names, it is hard to fathom that no one seems to know the story behind bourbon whiskey and how it got that name.
In this episode, we'll dive deeper into names and the history surrounding the name "Bourbon" in America - and we'll look at two sources that could lead us learning how bourbon got its name.
Listen to the full episode with the player above or find it on your favorite podcast app under "Whiskey Lore." The full transcript is available on the tab above.
It was 1951 and Margie Samuels decided her husband Bill needed a hobby. Bill Samuels, Sr. came from a long line of bourbon distillers, under the T.W. Samuels brand and the family fortunes had left him a farm and an early retirement at the age of 37.
For Bill, reviving the family distillery seemed like the perfect way to occupy his time. But the bourbon market was becoming oversaturated and American tastes seemed to be moving to softer spirits like blended scotch and Canadian whiskies.
If Bill was going to make a run at starting a bourbon distillery, he would have to see if he could make his family’s bourbon more palatable to modern tastes. For this, he needed some outside opinions, so he gathered together an advisory board made up of distilling veterans like Pappy Van Winkle, Jim Beam’s son Jerry, and Ed Shapiro of Heaven Hill Distilleries.
He fired up the still and cranked out a batch of his family’s 170 year old recipe. After tasting it, he gathered his family and advisors into a room, dropped the family recipe into a bucket and set it on fire!
Bill knew the only way he was going to succeed was to start over with a completely new mash bill. When Margie saw his commitment to this new hobby, she decided to lend him a hand.
But creating a new mash bill is not a fast and easy process. Distilling takes time; baking bread is significantly faster. So she started baking bread with different grain recipes to try to figure out which would create the softer taste they were looking for.
Rye was the first thing to be eliminated. Rye is the predominant secondary grain in bourbon, after corn, but it was rye’s spicy characteristic that Bill determined was creating an unnecessary bite. According to her son Bill Samuels, Jr, his mother Margie baked over 150 different loaves of bread from different recipes.
The winning grain was soft red winter wheat.
With the wheated mash bill selected, it was time to find a home for the distillery. As luck would have it, Bill discovered the perfect location, a run down historic distillery just waiting to be revived. To raise money, he sold their home in Bardstown and moved the family 25 miles south to Star Hill Farms.
Meanwhile, Margie was busy working on both a new name and new brand for the family’s bourbon.
To set this bourbon apart, she knew it needed to have an elevated identity. Something that went beyond the bourbon tradition of featuring former distillers on the bottle.
She loved the elegant shapes of the cognac bottles she collected, so she used those as inspiration for her bottle design. Some of those bottles also came with a wax seal, which she found to be a classy touch. She loaded her deep fryer up with red wax to experiment.
Obviously this bourbon would need a name; as she started to think through possibilities, she remembered her English pewter collection. These beautiful pieces were each individually branded with a logo and the name of the manufacturer - an element known as the maker’s mark.
But it ended up being more than just a name. Margie began working on a seal that would create a new heritage. Look on any bottle of Maker’s Mark and you will see a circle with the initials “S” and “IV.” The “S” represents the family surname Samuel. The “IV” is a Roman numeral and signifies Bill’s standing as a fourth generation family distiller. Only after the mark was established did they discover he was actually the sixth generation. The last element was a star. The star was in honor of Star Hill Farms, the plot of land that housed both the family and newly resurrected Burks Springs Distillery.
Margie then finished designing the hand torn label and gave extra emphasis to the word whisky, spelled without an ‘e’ This was both to honor the Scottish spelling of whisky, but also to set Maker’s Mark apart in a crowded bourbon market.
The first hand-dipped bottle hit the shelves in 1958 and to this day, every bottle is hand labeled and hand dipped in red wax. Take a trip to Maker’s Mark in Loretto, Kentucky and you can even dip your own bottle for an extra fee.
For her part in creating a lasting image for Maker’s Mark, and inspiring future distillers to elevate their brands, Margie Samuels was inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2014. And Bill’s hobby and Margie's marketing ingenuity have evolved Maker’s Mark into one of the most recognizable brands of bourbon in the world.
THE CONCEPT OF BRANDS
Picture a world with no brands and brand names. It’s pretty difficult isn’t it? Even people are developing personal brands, these days. And many companies start to develop their brand even before a product or service is ready for the market.
When did all of this madness start? And why are brands so important?
Branding was born out of necessity in the ancient world. The concept of putting your “brand” on something meant you wanted to show ownership. Think of that red hot branding iron scorching a symbol into the flesh of cattle. There is actual illustrated evidence of the firebranding of cattle in ancient Egyptian tombs, dating back two millenia before Aristotle and the Greeks.
But there is also evidence of product manufacturers putting their name or symbol on a product, similar to Margie Samuels’ English pewter. Maker’s marks were burned into pottery and ceramics were commonly stamped with identifying marks throughout antiquity. For these manufacturers, it was less about showing ownership and more about demonstrating pride in their work or the product’s origin.
As an advertising medium, the concept of brand names didn’t really catch on until the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. And even then, packaging and logos were still a couple of centuries away from becoming a standard.
And in the 17th and 18th centuries, if you even had access to a store, it was less about choosing a brand and more about what was available - say a pound of flour, a bushel of corn, or a dozen eggs. Most likely there would be only a single brand to choose from, if a brand was even identified.
Why am I bringing this up? Well, because when we start asking questions about our past and our ancestors, looking at things through our modern lens may hold us back from the answers we seek. Instead we need to view things through our ancestor’s eyes and using their sensibilities.
And this becomes crystal clear when we start asking the question, how did bourbon whiskey get its name?
In the modern world it’s easy to determine the origin of names and brands because we are so hyper focused on it. But in the 18th century, Kentucky farmer-distillers were focusing more on survival, feeding their families, and deciding how to get the most out of their corn crops. Just producing whiskey and finding a buyer was enough. Finding a name for the spirit was the last thing on their minds.
But somewhere in the 18th or 19th century, the name bourbon did evolve as the moniker for the corn whiskey being distilled around the Ohio Valley and throughout Kentucky and parts of Tennessee.
There is a possibility that one person came up with the name, but it is also highly likely that the name simply evolved over time from something else named bourbon.
Discounting the idea that the word “bourbon” was simply created in a vacuum, let's put on our 18th century glasses and dig into the two most likely sources of the name bourbon. A county in Virginia or a street in bayou country.
ORIGIN OF THE WORD BOURBON
Bourbonnais (bur-bun-aye) was a French province that developed a century after the reign of Charlemagne. The ruler of this region was known as the Sire of Bourbon and his royal House of Bourbon fell directly under control of the royal House of France.
There was a lot of instability in medieval France and the house was not a stable one. After collapsing twice, the establishment of the third House of Bourbon in 1272 would secure the dynasty for centuries to come. In fact, in 1589, the House of Bourbon would be the source for French kings all the way until she abolished the monarchy in 1848.
BOURBON STREET’S ORIGINS
During the reign of King Louis XIV (14) of France great discoveries in the New World were made in his name. In 1763, two of his explorers announced the discovery of the Mississippi River, and nine years later La Salle claimed the entire Mississippi River Basin for France. In Louis’ honor, he named it Louisiane.
In 1721, a French royal engineer named Adrien de Pauger (ah-dree-uh day poo zhay) was charged with laying out the city streets of New Orleans, to help create a semblance of order in its design. When deciding on street names, he focused a collection Catholic Saints and French Royal Houses. In honor of the ruling family at the time, Rue Bourbon was developed.
After their defeat in the French and Indian War, the French were forced to give up New Orleans to the Spanish. The street was renamed Calle de Borbon (kah-yay de Borbon) and then finally would become Bourbon Street after the Louisiana Territory was purchased by the United States in 1803.
But Bourbon Street wasn’t the only thing in America that was honoring the royal House of Bourbon.
Just ten years after Lexington and Concord, the British colonies in America were now the United States of America. It wasn’t an easy road for General George Washington and his citizen army. In fact, it wasn’t until the Battle of Saratoga in 1777 that a potential victory over the British could be contemplated. That is because the young country was in dire need of help. And it would be the French royal House of Bourbon they would lay their hopes on.
Up until Saratoga, King Louis XVI (16) had withheld his support for the scrappy young nation. But with some prodding from Benjamin Franklin this statement victory by the Yankees, the king promised to help.
The help wasn’t quick to arrive. It took four years before the French fleet under the guidance of Rochambeau made their move - but it was a decisive one. With British troops under the leadership of General Cornwallis surrounded at Yorktown, American victory in the War for Independence was all but assured.
America held much admiration for the French at that time and so it was no surprise when in 1785, the Virginia legislature sliced off a large chunk of Fayette County and renamed it Bourbon County.
Even though it was just a portion of the previous county, Bourbon County was still massive. Over the next few years it would be sliced and diced into several additional counties. But even with the great partitioning going on, residents of these new counties seemed to pay homage to their past by continuing to refer to their areas as Old Bourbon.
By 1792, Virginia was becoming hard to manage as a single state. It was trying to regulate lands all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River. So it was determined that the state should be split in two, with the western portion, becoming the state of Kentucky. And so the name bourbon would begin its relationship with the Bluegrass State.
For historians and distillery tour guides, these two sources, Bourbon County (Kentucky) and Bourbon Street in New Orleans, seem to be the logical two influences on the origin of the name of bourbon whiskey. The debates are passionate on either side.
Bourbon County, Kentucky seems the most obvious choice. It is in the region where the spirit originates and it would have been the origin for any whiskey flowing down the Mississippi to New Orleans. But the argument is made that Bourbon County was just a small central Kentucky county by the time the name evolved.
So that sends people to Louisiana. Bourbon Street, they say, was party central. If you were going to be seeking out a drink, then this loose and fancy free section of the French Quarter had to be where it came from. Give me some of that whiskey I had on Bourbon Street.
After visiting distillery after distillery in Kentucky, I decided to head down to New Orleans to get a local’s side of the story. If I was going to get a full picture, I wanted to have both sides lobby and provide me evidence that I could use to get a clearer picture. What I learned in New Orleans shocked me. It was not at all what I expected. But more on that later.
BOURBON COUNTY’S CASE
Let’s start with Bourbon County
Farmer-distillers had been making their way to the area soon to be known as Kentucky, throughout the Revolutionary War. Buffalo Trace distillery tells the story of Willis and Hancock Lee distilling spirits on the shores of the Kentucky River as far back as 1775, following in the footsteps of the great bison stampedes.
There was more than just getting out of the path of war that drove people west. As the new nation gathered its collective breath, the new Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton was looking for a way to settle war debts. He decided to place a tax on whiskey. Farmer-distillers in Western Pennsylvania began to revolt and the Whiskey Rebellion saw another wave of distillers moving west.
For farmer-distillers who moved into the areas north and east of modern day Lexington during the 1780s, they would have been moving into Bourbon County when it was still part of Virginia. By the time Kentucky had gained statehood in 1792, Bourbon County was now just a fragment of what it used to be, but the Old Bourbon name apparently held in the region. And if you lived in that area and wanted to ship your whiskey down the Ohio River, Limestone Landing (which evolved into Maysville) would have been your port of choice.
Promoters of the Bourbon County theory for the origin of bourbon’s name suggest that corn whiskey barrels being loaded on flatboats at this port were most likely being stamped with the word Bourbon, Old Bourbon, or Old Bourbon County, to signify the place of origin.
However, since photography was not available to American’s in these early days and records weren’t well kept (especially in a time where distillers were trying to avoid paying the taxman), there is no physical evidence to prove that barrel heads from that time period were being stamped, or bills of lading being written with the word bourbon. So we can only speculate.
As for anything being labeled as “bourbon” at Louisville’s Shippingport docks, this seems unlikely since the area of Old Bourbon was a decent distance away over land.
There is another possibility with Louisville though. The reason Louisville became a city was because of its proximity to the Falls of the Ohio. When the river was low, this series of rapids dropped the river 26 feet over a two mile length and would be an obstacle for any ships heading west. Flatboats would be unloaded on one side and reloaded on the other. It is possible that if flatboats had come from Maysville with “bourbon” on the barrelhead, enough repetition in moving barrels might have caused an association to be made. Similar to how some brand names have become synonymous with their product line, like Kleenex, Chapstick, or Band-aids. See the word bourbon enough and you start to use it. After all, repetition is the mother of retention.
Prior to 1803 and the Louisiana Purchase, where down the Ohio would people in Louisville be shipping whiskey to?
In the 1790s the Mississippi River was off limits to American boats thanks to Secretary of State John Jay and a concession to the Spanish that allowed them exclusive access to the river. There is no major port between Louisville and the merging of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. So if shipments through Louisville were the reason for the name bourbon, it had to have happened in the 19th, not 18th centuries.
It could also be that there was a market in Louisville for whiskey from the other side of the state, but with so many distillers in and south of Louisville, this seems unlikely.
By 1807, Maysville had firmly established itself as Louisville’s competitor on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River and in 1811, steamboat traffic started to make its way up and down the Ohio. However, by 1814 another whiskey tax was levied by the Federal government to pay for the War of 1812, so during the years between 1814 until the tax was removed in 1817, there is a good chance Old Bourbon might want to be disguising itself, rather than promoting itself.
And that is just it. The whole first two decades of the 19th century are nothing but speculation, when it comes to Kentucky and the origins of the name bourbon whiskey.
So what is the oldest physical evidence of the word bourbon being used in association with Kentucky corn whiskey?
And what about this connection with New Orleans and Bourbon Street?
The answers will be revealed next time on Whiskey Lore.
- Michael Veach at New Orleans Whiskey Fair (Video)
- Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America's Whiskey by Reid Mitenbuler