I had always been told it originated in Bourbon County, Kentucky, and that anything called “bourbon whiskey” has to be made there. Not true. Very little bourbon is actually made in Bourbon County. Did bourbon originate there? Probably not. No one really knows where the name “bourbon whiskey” actually came from. One story that’s gained quite a bit of currency over the past couple of decades has to do with a port along the Ohio River where barrels of Kentucky whiskey were loaded for transport to New Orleans (the primary market for Kentucky whiskey in the 1800’s). So the story goes, the port was located in a region of the state that was called “Old Bourbon” before Kentucky was admitted to the union and its counties were formalized. Barrels loaded onto New Orleans-bound ships were stamped “Bourbon” to indicate their point of origin.
There’s no proof at all of that. A likelier explanation is that bourbon whiskey was named for Bourbon Street in New Orleans, the site where most Kentucky whiskey was sold and consumed in those days. It’s not difficult to imagine, having tasted the unique liquor for sale there, that Bourbon Street’s patrons went on to spread the word about “Bourbon whiskey” up and down the Mississippi and along the gulf coast.
Oh, and it’s a popular myth that liquor can’t be legally sold in Bourbon County, Kentucky, that it’s a “dry” country in other words. That’s untrue. Christian County, Kentucky, isn’t dry either.