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Why is Bourbon Called Bourbon? The Origins (2024 Updated)

Why is Bourbon Called Bourbon

Last Updated on April 12, 2024 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

Old Forester 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

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

Oak Barrel

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.

Read: All About Cask Strength Bourbon

What are Age Statements?

Knob creek 9

Bourbon age statements [1] 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. 


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

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. 

Why is bourbon called bourbon and not whiskey?

Bourbon is a type of whiskey, but it has its own distinctive characteristics and production standards that set it apart. The name “bourbon” is derived from Bourbon County, Kentucky, where it is believed to have originated. While bourbon is a subset of whiskey, the specific term “bourbon” is used to describe a whiskey that adheres to certain regulations and production methods.

What makes bourbon a bourbon?

Several factors distinguish bourbon from other types of whiskey:

Mash Bill: Bourbon must have a mash bill (grain recipe) that is at least 51% corn.

Distillation: It must be distilled to no more than 160 proof.

Barrel Aging: Bourbon must be aged in new charred oak barrels.

Entry Proof: The spirit must enter the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof.

Bottling Proof: Bourbon must be bottled at a minimum of 80 proof.

These requirements, among others, define the unique characteristics of bourbon.

Why is bourbon different than whiskey?

While bourbon is a type of whiskey, the term “whiskey” is a broader category that includes various styles such as Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey, and rye whiskey. Bourbon is specifically differentiated by its adherence to the regulations outlined above, including the use of a certain mash bill, new charred oak barrels, and aging processes.

Why is Jack Daniel’s called bourbon?

Jack Daniel’s is not called bourbon; it is labeled as Tennessee Whiskey. The distinction lies in the additional step known as the Lincoln County Process, where the whiskey is filtered through sugar maple charcoal before aging in new charred oak barrels. This process sets Tennessee Whiskey apart from bourbon and is a defining characteristic of Jack Daniel’s.

Is Jack Daniel’s a bourbon or a whiskey?

Jack Daniel’s is classified as Tennessee Whiskey, not bourbon. While all bourbons are whiskey, not all whiskeys are bourbon. The specific production methods, such as the Lincoln County Process and other unique characteristics of Jack Daniel’s, contribute to its classification as Tennessee Whiskey rather than bourbon.

Why is Jack Daniel’s not bourbon?

Jack Daniel’s is not classified as bourbon due to its unique production process, specifically the Lincoln County Process. This involves filtering the whiskey through sugar maple charcoal before aging it in new charred oak barrels. While Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey shares similarities with bourbon, such as being made primarily from corn, the additional step of charcoal filtering sets it apart and categorizes it as Tennessee Whiskey rather than bourbon.

Is bourbon different than bourbon whiskey?

No, “bourbon” and “bourbon whiskey” are terms used interchangeably. Bourbon is a type of whiskey, and the two terms refer to the same spirit. The use of “whiskey” in conjunction with “bourbon” is simply a matter of preference or tradition, and both terms describe the same distilled alcoholic beverage that meets specific production standards.

Is Jim Beam A bourbon?

Yes, Jim Beam is a well-known brand of bourbon. It is produced in Kentucky and adheres to the regulations and requirements for bourbon production. Jim Beam is one of the most recognized and widely consumed bourbon brands globally.

Why is bourbon different to whisky?

Bourbon is a specific type of whiskey, and the differences between bourbon and other types of whiskey lie in factors such as the mash bill, aging process, and specific regulations governing bourbon production. While all bourbons are whiskey, not all whiskeys are bourbon. The term “whiskey” is a broader category that includes various styles such as Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey, and rye whiskey.

Why is bourbon different to whisky?

The distinction between bourbon and whisky lies in the specific regulations and production standards that define each category. Bourbon is a type of whiskey, and the term “bourbon” is used to describe a whiskey that meets certain legal requirements. The differences include factors such as the mash bill, aging process, and bottling proof, making bourbon a unique subset within the broader category of whiskey. In some regions, like Scotland or Ireland, the term “whisky” is commonly used, while in the United States, the term “bourbon” is employed to specify this particular style of whiskey.

Final Thoughts: Why Is Bourbon Called 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.


  1. Whiskey Age Statement Bottle Meaning
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