Last Updated on August 22, 2023 by Lydia Martin
Bourbon is named after the Bourbon county in Kentucky where it was first produced. This dark, sweet whisky became popular as people traveled west and settled in new territories after the American Revolution. It was a necessary beverage for those roughing it out West!
But why is bourbon called bourbon? Here’s the story about America’s Native Spirit.
Origin of Bourbon
Bourbon is an American whiskey made from corn and stored in charred new oak barrels. It is named after a French division called Bourbon County in Kentucky, where it was first produced. Learn more about how to store bourbon here.
Bourbon has a long and storied history, and its exact origins are unknown. However, it is believed that it was first made by Scottish and Irish immigrants who came to America in the late 18th century to 19th century. Old bourbon whiskey stood out because it was the first corn whiskey people tasted.
These settlers brought with them the knowledge of distilling whiskey, which they used to make bourbon. Over time, old bourbon became an essential part of American culture, and today it is enjoyed by people worldwide.
Soon enough, old bourbon distillers like Elijah Craig, Jack Daniel, and Colonel Edmund Taylor, Jr (of Buffalo Trace) took advantage of the expanding market for distilled spirits in New Orleans.
How Bourbon Got Its Name
Bourbon got its name from the original Bourbon County in Kentucky. Bourbon county was named after the French royal family, the House of Bourbon. Hence, Bourbon County whiskey. In the 1700s, settlers in Kentucky began producing corn whiskey, which was shipped down the Ohio River.
However, historian Michael Veach maintains that bourbon did not get its name from Bourbon County, Kentucky. He believes that it actually comes from Bourbon Street in New Orleans. There’s the story of the Tarascon brothers from Cognac, France, who wanted to win over New Orleans residents with their special whiskey.
Over time, old bourbon whiskey came to be associated with the city of Louisville, which is also located in Kentucky.
As bourbon has become more popular, several bourbon county whiskey festivals have been established in bourbon-producing states like Kentucky and Tennessee.
What Makes It Popular
Several factors contribute to bourbon’s popularity among Kentucky whiskey drinkers.
It has a rich flavor and distinct aroma that many people find appealing. Additionally, bourbon whiskey is made in America, making it an attractive choice for those looking to support local producers.
Furthermore, bourbon tends to have a lower proof or alcohol content than other types of whiskey, resulting in less intense hangovers and allowing drinkers to enjoy more drinks per night.
It is also widely available at affordable prices, making it accessible to consumers of all budgets.
5 Rules To Be Legally Termed Bourbon
1. Has to Be Made in the USA
Unlike many other spirits, bourbon has to be made in the United States to be legally considered bourbon. Today, bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States, but most bourbon producers are in present-day Kentucky.
In 1964, the U.S. Congress passed Resolution 57, which declared bourbon “a distinctive product of the United States.” As a result of this resolution, bourbon must be made in the United States to be truly bourbon.
While there are many bourbon producers outside of Kentucky, the state is still considered the heart of bourbon county.
2. Aged in New Charred American Oak Barrels
Bourbon is a type of whiskey made from corn and must be aged in new, charred American barrels. The process of aging whiskey in these charred barrels imparts a unique flavor to the liquor that cannot be replicated with any other type of barrel. In addition to the flavor, the charring of the barrels also helps to filter out impurities and give bourbon its characteristic amber color.
While bourbon can be aged in barrels that have been used for other spirits, such as scotch or wine, it is the use of new American charred oak barrels that gives bourbon its distinct flavor and allows it to truly stand out from other whiskeys.
3. Contain Mash Bill of At Least 51% Corn
Bourbon is a type of American whiskey made from a mash bill of at least 51% corn. It is the combination of grains used to make the bourbon, and the other grains typically used in bourbon are rye and wheat. Popular bourbon brands include Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark.
4. Distilled to 160 Proof
In order to be classified as bourbon, the distillate must meet a number of requirements, including being refined to not more than 160 proof. This high proof ensures that the bourbon has a consistent flavor profile and quality.
5. 125 Proof & 80 Proof Distillation Rule
To be considered bourbon, this spirit must undergo a distillation process at two different proof levels – 125 proof and 80 proof. The high-proof bourbon is distilled to remove impurities like water and other flavor molecules.
When bourbon is aged, it cannot go higher than 125 proof. Also, as a final requirement, bottled bourbon must have a minimum proof of 80 or at least 40% ABV.
What are Age Statements?
Bourbon age statements  tell you how long the bourbon was aged in the barrel. The minimum aging time for bourbon is two years, but most bourbon is aged for four years or longer. Bourbon age statements or bourbon labels can be found on the front or back of the bourbon bottle. An age statement is required if it is less than four years.
Most drinkers prefer bourbon aged for four years or longer, as these tend to have more complex flavor profiles.
However, some younger bourbons can be excellent alcoholic beverages, as well.
Is bourbon only from Kentucky?
No. While bourbon distilling can be made anywhere in the United States, Kentucky bourbon whiskey has a reputation for being some of the best bourbons in the world.
Can Tennessee whiskey be called bourbon?
No. Tennessee whiskey simply cannot be called bourbon, same with rye whiskey. Some experts argue that because bourbon has such strict standards that set it apart as a unique type of liquor, any spirit that doesn’t comply with these requirements should not be labeled bourbon.
While we might not know who invented bourbon, it is a truly unique type of corn-based whiskey known for its rich, complex flavor. Many distilleries use a specialized process that involves double distillation at two different proof levels.
This careful process helps capture all of the subtle nuances and complexities of the bourbon industry, making it one of the most beloved spirits.