How Did Bourbon Get Its Name? (Part 2)

Chasing the origins of the name bourbon to Bourbon Street, New Orleans.

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Show Notes

New Orleans Edition (with Elizabeth Pearse of drinkandlearn.com)

This week, we look at New Orleans and Bourbon Street as a potential source for the name of "bourbon" whiskey. We'll cover the theories that suggest this famous street's influence on bourbon's name and unveil a secret about Bourbon Street that most people are not aware of.

Elizabeth Pearce of the Drink and Learn podcast joins me as we dig into the origins of the name of bourbon whiskey.

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.


Previously on Whiskey Lore

Last week we told the story of how Margie Samuels created the Maker's Mark brand we know today. And we also looked at the history of branding and where all of this naming came from. 

Next, we traced the word bourbon all the way back from France to Old Bourbon County VA, Bourbon County Kentucky and Bourbon Street in New Orleans and we looked deeper into Old Bourbon County's case for being the namesake of Bourbon Whiskey.

This week, I'll share parts of my interview with Elizabeth Pearce, New Orleans resident, drinks historian and host of the Drink and Learn podcast - and we'll look at Bourbon Street's case for being the namesake of America's Native Spirit.

What you will learn today is not a history that is not widely known. I am about to dispel a wide spread narrative that started as speculation and grew more credible with each magazine and historian that repeated it. And by the end of this episode, that theory will no longer seem plausible. And either Old Bourbon County or Bourbon Street will become the obvious favorite in the discussion of "where bourbon whiskey got its name"

Let’s take a trip back to the turn of the 19th century. 

In Europe, the Napoleonic Wars were on the horizon.  

In Russia, Czar Paul I the disputed son of Catherine the Great was murdered and replaced by his son Alexander I

The Act of Union brought Ireland into the Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. 

Toussaint Louverture, fresh from successes in a slave revolt, enters the capital city of Santa Domingo. Taking control of the entire island of Hispaniola, which is modern day Haiti and the Dominican Republic. 

In the United States

Thomas Jefferson is in an electoral mess with his bitter rival Aaron Burr. The most contested election in American history wouldn’t be resolved until February of the following year as the House of Representatives elected Thomas Jefferson president on the 36th ballot. 

There were 16 states, including Vermont, Tennessee, and Kentucky. 

On the Ohio River, Flatboats were heavily in use. The steamboat was still 6 years away and the first 13 mile stretch of railroad was still 29 years away. Horse or horse and buggy were still the optimal way to make a journey across land. 

It was somewhere around this time that bourbon whiskey literally made a name for itself. But when and how?

In the previous episode, we looked at the most logical choice, Old Bourbon County (Kentucky). However, up through 1820, there is no physical evidence that shows the name in use anywhere in or around Kentucky.

This has led historians and distillery tour guides to look for inspiration elsewhere. And this inevitably leads them down the Mississippi River to the most famous non-whiskey use of the name bourbon in America, Bourbon Street in New Orleans. 

The idea that the name of bourbon whiskey came from New Orleans is rooted in several beliefs. 

First, if you were drinking corn whiskey in Kentucky, it was likely unaged and harsh. Not something you would seek out. Plus there was plenty of it around. On the other hand, after spending weeks aging in oak barrels during a trek down the Mississippi River, the red whiskey that was making it to New Orleans was worth asking for. 

Next, it’s no secret that the French Creoles loved their brandy and cognac, so a lower cost substitute that looked and tasted similar would easily draw the locals into a love for aged Kentucky whiskey. And the proof being that New Orleans still has a strong relationship with bourbon today. 

Add to that, Bourbon Street’s reputation as a wild and carefree party destination, and it makes sense that locals and visitors alike would specifically ask for that wonderful Bourbon Street whiskey they had enjoyed. 

But just like with Bourbon County, there seems to be no smoking gun. No firm shred of evidence to prove these theories correct.

Not knowing a lot of New Orleans drinking history myself, I decided it was time to head to bayou country in Louisiana to see if I could find any concrete evidence around the theories about Bourbon Street’s influence on the name. I asked New Orleans drinks historian, podcaster, and local tour specialist Elizabeth Pearce if we could sit down and go through all of these theories and compare them with her knowledge of New Orleans and Bourbon Street history.

And what she revealed to me during that conversation turns all we know about New Orleans and bourbon on its head. 


Finding a starting point for the possible connection between bourbon and Bourbon Street is easy - 1803 and the Louisiana Purchase. Up until then, shipments of Kentucky corn whiskey would not have been allowed to traverse the waters of the Mississippi River. The river was still under exclusive control of the Spanish. In fact, Spain also controlled New Orleans at that time. So to get shipments of Kentucky corn whiskey to New Orleans, the barrels would have had to make the long hard and dangerous journey by land, down to Nashville first and then along the 440 miles of the Natchez Trace, a path carved out by Native Americans and the site of frequent attacks on settlers.

Now, you may be thinking, wait, I thought the United States purchased Louisiana from the French? They did. But recall that the French had given up control of the territory after the French and Indian War. Louisiana spent 40 years under Spanish control. But unbeknownst to the American government, in 1800, Spain and France started working on a secret agreement to trade Tuscany on the Italian peninsula for Louisiana. By November of 1803, the swap was made and France had regained control of Louisiana. But whether they were going to loosen up control of the Mississippi, no one really knows.

But the French decided to drop the colony like a hot potato. Between Toussaint Louverture's costly slave revolt in France’s Carribean colonies, and the fear that a French return to the American continent might stir up trouble, Napoleon shuffled the land off to Thomas Jefferson within four weeks of acquiring it.

With that simple transaction, New Orleans immediately became the second largest port under American control and the Mississippi River was now opened to trade. For the first time, the possibility of Ohio Valley distillers getting their whiskey down to the port of New Orleans was a reality. 

But were the Louisiana Creoles ready to adopt the tastes and culture that this new American identity would bring?

Elizabeth: Though we were also ruled by the Spanish for almost as long as we were ruled by the French, they never really liked the Spanish and so clung to this French identity. 

Thanks to Elizabeth, if I learned anything during our talk, it is that the locals, who identified themselves as French Creoles, were fiercely loyal to French customs and traditions. And if the American’s thought their customs and influences would be welcomed with open arms, they were in for a surprise. 

Elizabeth: When Thomas Jefferson sent the first governor William Claibourne, there was going to be a ball and there was a disagreement - fight - over whether they were going to play a French waltz first or an American waltz and swords were drawn and William Claiborne is writing back to Thomas Jefferson about like “what am I gonna do, these people are fighting over dancing,” and Thomas Jefferson’s like “you gotta figure that out (laughs), I can’t deal with this Will!” And I set this scene because there was this very strong belief by the French locals that the Americans were interlopers. They didn’t really like them. Also, the Americans and the American part of the city will eventually become the most prosperous - and so there is this kind of resentment as well.

So there were obviously dividing lines between American and French cultures during the first two decades of the 19th century. So how were the locals choosing to spend their drinking money?

Elizabeth: You have more and more and more Americans coming here and they already have a taste for American whiskey - not brandy. While the French Creoles would prefer to drink something from France because it's about, obviously it’s about your personal taste preference, but it’s also about identity.  

So it makes sense that the flatboats that initially made their way down from Kentucky were most likely focusing on selling to willing American buyers. Because trying to sell the Creoles was going to be an uphill battle. 

Even if the whiskey looked or tasted similar to brandy or cognac, it simply wasn’t French enough. 

Elizabeth recalls an old interview she heard with an elderly woman whose grandmother lived through those years - she remembered vividly how her grandmother used to talk about Americans and their culture.

Elizabeth: For her grandmother Americans were nothing, they were awful and you didn’t cross canal if you could help it. And it was just, she was so disdainful of them and everything they brought that was vulgar or whatever. So this idea that whiskey with color would be a good substitute for brandy, I think is misguided, because the French would rather drink Mississippi water or frankly drink rum from Martinique.  Better to have slightly vinegary French wine, than American whiskey. But the percentage of Americans, that is the percentage of the population is growing and growing and growing, because they are all coming here, because there is all of this opportunity. And so that’s who it's being sold to.

So she doesn’t dispute that Kentucky corn whiskey had a following in New Orleans, but having a whiskey with color wasn’t really a selling point. And to the audience that wanted it, the Americans, they were probably more thrilled that it was more pleasant on the palate.

And that raises the question, how did this affect the product up the chain, back in the land of farmer-distillers?

Elizabeth: Just the time that it took to get from what we now call Kentucky or Tennessee or whatever, that it could be up to several months and then you have Americans who are here who are saying, “oh well this is better than the last batch.” And then you have distillers, who wouldn't have been called, because they were just farmers who also distilled whiskey, responding to this demand and saying “oh well maybe I’ll hold back a few barrels and see…”

But this is where we return to my point from the last episode about trying to apply modern branding, marketing, and sales techniques to 19th century farmer-distillers.

Elizabeth: I think most people were living in the present and were eager to sell whatever they could. There was no impetus to hold onto it, or hold onto a lot of it. It’s funny, I went to a Tales of the Cocktail vodka seminar and it's the first time I thought about aging and managing inventory. And it's like if you were a Slav peasant in Siberia, you are drinking your vodka right away, there is no time to waste. The Cossacks can come any minute.  Yeah, and so I thought like, oh that is why you hear about all kinds of spirits like rum and whiskey being firey or being this and that, because they distilled them and then drank them immediately.

So in these early days, most likely the only whiskey that was getting extra time in the barrel was the whiskey sloshing its way down the Mississippi River. And that would mean that the aged product they were drinking in New Orleans would have been something worth bragging about. 

So while we can now discount the idea that having brandy colored whiskey was somehow going to get the Creoles to request that Bourbon Street bourbon, to the Americans and visitors to New Orleans that mellower aged product might still have people requesting that whiskey they had on Bourbon Street...right?  

Well, what Elizabeth is about to share comes largely from a New Orleans geographer named Richard Campenella and his book “Bourbon Street: A History.” His deep research into the history of the famous street is about to give us all the evidence we need to dispel one of the theories about the origins of the name “bourbon whiskey.” 

Elizabeth: Something that most Americans, again this is like, you live in the now and you think that the now has always been thus. Bourbon Street as an entertainment district, as this place that everybody talks about, that you have to go if you want to have a good time in New Orleans, doesn’t really emerge until after World War II. There were other places where people went to have a good time. Some of it was right along the river- which was Gallatin Street which is definitely very rowdy and it is where all the cane tucks would disembark from their barge and there was plenty of vice or whatever vice you were looking for, it was there. And then we’ll eventually have Storyville which some of your listeners may have heard of, which was a vice district created after the Civil War. That closes in anticipation of New Orleans becoming a port of embarkation during World War I. So that all of the Doughboys would not get STDs en route to Europe. And in the 19th century, the first inklings of Bourbon Street being a place where people went to have a good time, doesn’t happen until 1860 when the French Opera House is constructed. And it becomes this anchor of performances, balls, parties and Arneaux’s Restaurant opens around then, a couple of other theatres. But now you’re like right before the Civil War, when I think bourbon is well named by then. And the other thing is, people aren’t talking about Bourbon Street. You know, you have the traveler who is coming and writing local color or people who are visiting New Orleans and are writing home about what they see - no one is talking about Bourbon Street as THE place to go. They’ll talk about the French Quarter or they’ll talk about specific venues, but people aren’t associating Bourbon Street as this good time.

What’s that? Bourbon Street’s party central reputation isn’t born until two score into the 20th century? How the heck did we get so turned around?

Elizabeth: They’re looking for, well like if it’s not from Bourbon County then where can it be from. And everybody’s heard of Bourbon Street and it’s like oh that’s a good time. And it’s wasn’t dead, a lot of people just lived there and it was a bank and a hardware store, like that kind of thing…

Me: if it has an Opera House than there’s probably a little more upper crust type patrons than just the common…

Elizabeth: Yeah, it’s not like rolling barrels down the street. But also I think the first thing that will be the seeds of Bourbon Street is not until 1860 and it’s my understanding that this whiskey is being called something besides corn well before 1860. 

I gotta tell you, I was shocked. I went into this journey thinking I was going to open up more possibilities on Bourbon Street’s standing in this debate, but instead I find it was basically a residential district during the years that the “bourbon whiskey” name was gaining its association with the spirit. So even if the whiskey were something worth asking for, neither the color nor taste could overcome Bourbon Street’s lack of status in that era. 

Sometimes in trying to prove something, it is just as much of a win to disprove it. 

So what is Elizabeth's theory on where the name came from?

Elizabeth: In newspaper ads for whiskey, rye is often referred to as Monongahela, so they don’t call it rye, or the short was gehlah, from the area it was coming from. And so you’ll see in a list of this is what we got, it will say Monongahela, Bourbon, Jamaica Rum, Louisiana Rum. It seems that all of these spirits are being designated according to origin.

I left New Orleans thinking that is as good a theory as any. 

Then it was while I was finishing up my research for this episode that I stumbled on the book Southern Spirits by Robert Moss. In it, he suggests an ad clipping from August of 1824 in the Mississippi State Gazette shows S & HP Postlethwaite of Natchez advertising "100 Barrels Superior Bourbon County Whiskey" for sale.

Then, he shows another ad from the Natchez newspaper Ariel showing Sturgus & Miller promoting "Whiskey for sale. 200 barrels superior quality Bourbon county, Ky. Whiskey" 

This is around 35 years after Bourbon County reduced down to a miniscule size and the term Old Bourbon was in vogue. 

And then another ad. This one from January 23, 1826 showing J.W. Trembly selling "50 barrels Old Bourbon County Whiskey."

These ads show us a couple of things. First, that what was being described as bourbon could be passed off as being of “superior quality.” And that Old Bourbon County was still being acknowledged.

And according to historians, it appears the first known use of the word “bourbon” appears in an advertisement even older than those examples. They say that in 1821, a firm called Stout and Adams offered barrels of bourbon for sale in the Kentucky Western Citizen newspaper.

Sometimes it just takes a little patience.

So while there is no clear person, company, or defining moment that is officially responsible for the naming of America’s native spirit, it is pretty clear that Bourbon Street had nothing to do with it. Whether it originated out of someone’s imagination, or more likely was adopted through the repetition of barrels stamped Bourbon County, Old Bourbon, or simply bourbon - well we will just have to leave that much up for debate. 

And what better way to debate, than over a glass of bourbon.

Whiskey Lore is a production of Travel Fuels Life

Research, stories and production by Drew Hannush

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And stop by whiskey-lore.com for show notes and details from this and other episodes.

Thanks again to Elizabeth Pearse for taking her time to help unravel bits of bourbon’s history in New Orleans. And if you find yourself heading to New Orleans make sure to check out her tours and rumor has it, she is also going to be in a performance soon, built around New Orleans and spirits.

Check out her website drinkandlearn.com for more information. 

I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode. You now know something that most whiskey historians don’t. And I love that. I want you guys to be the smartest in the room. And until next time, cheers and slainte mhath.