Reader Paulie wants to know how Kentucky got to be so famous for it, and if it’s true that bourbon is named for a county in Kentucky where whiskey can’t actually be sold. Paulie, let me first say I love your name. It takes me back home to Chicago. Hey yo Paulie! How you doin’?
I’ll take the second part first, as they use to say on the old game shows. There is a Bourbon County, Kentucky. It’s in the northeastern part of the State. A popular myth is that all whiskey that carries the name “bourbon” must be made there for legal reasons, but that the county is — oh irony of ironies! — dry. None of that is true. There are no commercial distilleries there and never have been. Bourbon whiskey can be made anywhere (inside or outside of Kentucky) as long as it meets certain production requirements, and it is definitely legal to buy and consume liquor in Bourbon County, Kentucky.
What’s interesting is that the whole northeastern portion of Kentucky was once called “Old Bourbon County”. That was before Kentucky entered the union as a state in 1792. Old Bourbon County was attached to what was called “Trans-Allegheny Virginia”, a region that comprised what is now the State of Virginia plus West Virginia and some other miscellaneous stuff beyond.
Historically, most of Kentucky’s commercial whiskey distilleries have been located either here in Louisville or down just south of here in Bardstown, Kentucky — and from there along the so-called “bourbon trail” that stretches eastward to Lexington. A huge portion of America’s bourbon whiskey is still made in that area.
But if bourbon isn’t actually made in Bourbon County, how did it get its name? That’s a hotly debated subject here in Kentucky. It’s popularly thought that the name “bourbon” comes from Old Bourbon County. That claim makes a lot of sense, since even though there were never any commercial distilleries in that area, plenty of whiskey was made there once upon a time, albeit privately, in personal stills built by settlers. These folks were some of the first distillers to make corn whiskey in any quantity in America (most hard liquor drinkers drank rum up until that time), so it makes a certain amount of sense that bourbon (which by law must be made from at least 51% corn) was named for this style of corn-based hooch.
Lately local bourbon historians have begun to dispute that conventional wisdom, though. It turns out there is precious little evidence that anyone who made whiskey in that part of Kentucky ever referred to their product as “bourbon”. So then where did the name come from? Well it turns out that most of the whiskey that was made and sold here in Kentucky was put on boats, floated down the Ohio River, into to the Mississippi River, and then down to New Orleans where there was a waiting market on Bourbon Street, which was alcohol-soaked even in the 1800’s. So bourbon may be bourbon because it was bound for Bourbon Street.
Who knows? I’ve heard crazier things.