How Bourbon Got Its Name

Maker's Mark Barrel Distribution Wagon
You learn something new every day. Today I learned a very convincing new (to me at least) theory about where the Great American Spirit got its name. I found the story via the Smithsonian (yes, I’m reading their Food & Think blog a lot suddenly), who got it from Michael Veach, whiskey historian and author of Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage.

Bourbon is not named for Bourbon County, Kentucky. That is simply one of those stories that just makes so much sense, everyone sort of fell into believing it. (This is a common phenomenon with theories likely formed under the influence of bourbon.) No, much as it kills me to further inflate that city’s already bloated ego about its place in the cocktail world, bourbon got its name from New Orleans, Louisiana. And in particular, from Bourbon Street, which has been the concentrated booze consumption champion of the universe since its founding (every town in Russia excepted).

Food & Think distills Veach’s tale thusly:

In the 19th century, the New Orleans entertainment district was Bourbon Street, as it is today. “People starting(sic) asking for ‘that whiskey they sell on Bourbon Street,’” he says, “which eventually became ‘that bourbon whiskey.’”

Cool, no?

What I like about this story is that it points up a number of things about a subject near and dear to my heart: transportation. Moving crap from point A to point B is in my blood. Since American independence, my family has been making (then frittering away) fortune after fortune in transportation. Even when we’ve tried to make money in something else, like mining in California, the only assets we ended up with came out of moving stuff to and from the mines. The money we put into the ground pretty much remained there. The fact that I’m a writer, rather than a guy who moves boxes via ship, rail, or truck explains my relatively parlous bank balance.

What does this have to do with bourbon?

Transportation explains almost half of the history of booze in general, not just bourbon in particular. The important thing in understanding the overall history of booze is not that bourbon is named for Bourbon Street, but why all that Kentucky whiskey was in Louisiana of all places to begin with.

The other most important thing in the history of liquor is money, and the taxation thereof. Most of the men who started making the distinctive whiskey that came out of Kentucky set up shop there in the early 19th Century because of taxes. Specifically, they didn’t want to pay any. And George Washington had recently informed them in no uncertain terms that that wasn’t an option where they were living before.

Spirits are one of the great inventions in history for agricultural peoples. Why? Because transportation. Despite being the staff of life, grain is not very valuable by weight. Until advances in railroad technology, shipping grain very far was just not a very affordable proposition. But distilling a barn full of grain into a few, very valuable barrels of liquid, which not only could be relatively easily transported, but also didn’t spoil, turned the economic calculus on its head.

The problem for Kentucky’s whiskey makers was that they were so far out on the frontier that they still couldn’t get their product cheaply to the big markets on the east coast. Even smallish mountain ranges like the Appalachians are a formidable barrier to wagons. The cheap way to move product in those days was by water, which flows downhill, i.e. not over mountain ranges. Where water did flow, in great quantities, was down the Ohio and then Mississippi rivers, fetching up eventually in the port of New Orleans. A lot of the whiskey was supposed to go (and probably did go) to other ports, but the residents of New Orleans intercepted quite a bit and drank it themselves. Thus leading to bourbon’s name.

Veach notes that the particular treatment of bourbon barrels came in a response to market pressures, as over time, wood char works the same magic on corn liquor’s “taste” as it does on that of the otherwise crappy distilled wines of Cognac, which were the French-extracted Louisianians’ original favored liquor. And if your whiskey appealed to the thirsty throats of New Orleans, then you could more of it there, rather than pay shipping and/or a middleman’s cut to get it all the way to some place like Philadelphia. While this is all certainly true, improving the spirit was but a happy byproduct (like so many of mankind’s best inventions) of the real reason liquor, be it whiskey or brandy, was usually barreled in the first place: Logisitcs.

In early- and pre-industrial times, the barrel was the most efficient container for warehousing and transporting liquids. An enterprising young man could distill up a batch of good liquor in Kentucky, barrel it, lash the barrels together on the river bank, hop aboard with a sack lunch or twenty, and kick back for some quality fishing while the river did all the work to get you to New Orleans. Once there, you sold your hooch for a fortune, and bought passage on a river boat back home. Lather, rinse, repeat.

It’s not quite that simple, of course. Rivers, especially back then, were dangerous places of course. Bulleit Bourbon’s marketing has been centered from the beginning on Tom Bulleit’s great-great-grandpappy Augustus’s expedition to market in New Orleans, from which… he never returned!

Ooga-booga. It is quite possible that Augustus drowned in the river, was hijacked and killed, or met his end in some other sticky way. I prefer to believe he got to New Orleans, sold his special booze at a huge premium, changed his name, and settled down in the French Quarter in preference to returning to a hot, dangerous still in some sparsely-populated hollow in Kentucky.

The point is, the barrel made the trade possible in the first place. That it then turned out to improve the product immeasurably came second. Today, of course, there are much better ways to store and transport liquids. That barrels are still used is due to tradition, yes, but mostly due to the fact they no longer are really part of the logistics chain, but the manufacturing. Transportation guy that I am, it never turns out well these days if you let the transportation guys (God love ’em) mess with that formula.

So our interesting little piece of bar bet-winning trivia, that bourbon is named for Bourbon Street, not Bourbon County, ends up telling us so very much more. It tells us that George Washington, once the nation’s largest distiller himself, is responsible for the magical brown deliciousness that is bourbon! He crushed the Whiskey rebellion, which sent a bunch of crabby, parsimonious Scots and Scot-like distillers to frontier Kentucky. Once there, in order to sell their wares, they had to barrel them up and float them all the way to New Orleans. New Orleans needed some of their French heritage-induced charred oak flavors to make them really go over the moon for the product. That was easily done, because the stuff had to sit in barrels during transportation anyway, and the Kentuckians (those who made it back home anyway) spread the word how much better this made the liquor. As the practice matured with time, it became the only way of doing things, and even once the barrel’s utility, and New Orleans’ market demands, lost their importance, we are left with possibly the greatest spirit in the history of the world.

Was there nothing Washington couldn’t do?



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