It’s no coincidence that bourbon has the same name as Bourbon Street. Or is it? Debates have raged for years about how bourbon got its name. A small county in Kentucky, a royal family in France and, yes, our very own Bourbon Street all lay claim to the name. But which one was the drink named after? Let’s all fix a pour of bourbon and find out once and for all.
Theory #1: Named for the Bourbon Family
Before Bourbon was a drink, it was a dynasty. The House of Bourbon was a noble family that dates back to 13th century France. At the time, lots of companies attached the Bourbon family name to all kinds of products including Bourbon Coffee, Bourbon Sugar and so on. Having Bourbon in the name gave the products an aura of sophistication and allowed them to fetch higher prices. Not a bad business strategy.
It’s entirely possible that when barrels of bourbon started to make its way into places like New Orleans, they used the name Bourbon as a branding strategy like the coffees and sugars that came before it. The French roots of New Orleans give even more credence to this theory, but others are just as strong.
Verdict: It’s possible, but inconclusive
Theory #2: Named for Bourbon County, Kentucky
Bourbon County is a relatively small area of land outside of Lexington, Kentucky. But it used to take up most of what is now the northeastern part of the state. It’s also the place that makes and barrels tons of bourbon. Today, almost 95% of the world’s supply comes from Kentucky, much of it from this very county.
Need even more proof for Bourbon County’s claims? In the 1800s, a lot of spirits were named after the places they were made (we’re looking at you, Monongahela Rye from Pennsylvania). So, it’s easy to see that distillers might use the term bourbon as a catchall for a certain spirit that came from Kentucky—especially Bourbon County, Kentucky.
Verdict: It’s likely, but inconclusive
Theory #3: Named for Bourbon Street in New Orleans
Okay, this must be it, right? After all, Bourbon Street was one of the first places to enjoy bourbon in all its glory. And it’s where the spirit gained popularity like never before. Legend has it that before people called it bourbon, they referred to it as, “That whiskey drink on Bourbon Street.” Now, everyone associates Bourbon Street with imbibing and good times. So, Bourbon Street is what bourbon is named after. Right?
Actually, probably not. When bourbon was first getting its name, Bourbon Street was mostly residential. All of the lively festivities were happening a few blocks away on Royal Street and Gallatin. It wasn’t until later that Bourbon Street became a mainstay of drinks, dancing and everything else.
Verdict: It’s doubtful, but inconclusive
So, what’s the real answer? In short, no one knows for certain. Most experts believe Bourbon County has the strongest claim to the founding of the drink’s name. But a lot of the references of bourbon still date all the way back to the House of Bourbon family. And Bourbon Street is practically synonymous with the drink nowadays.
Whichever theory you believe for how bourbon got its name—we can all agree that we’re glad it’s around to be enjoyed.
BBQ and Whiskey Tasting hosted by The Sazerac House and Emmylou's BBQ.