Break out the bourbon! The holidays are near, and a respectable portion of imbibing Southerners look forward to bourbon’s smoky, oaky wallop in their cold-season cocktails. Cooks, too, know bourbon adds depth to savory winter dishes as well as to decadently elegant baked goods.
A lthough the distinctive taste and aroma of bourbon are familiar, and we’re pretty sure the spirit was first made in Kentucky, the mystery lies in the origin of its name, with one possibility linked to New Orleans.
The seeds of this beloved liquor were planted in the late 1700s in Pennsylvania, where the Scots-Irish used grains to distill whiskey and where the government’s attempt to pay for the revolution with a tax on the spirit naturally caused much angst. The resulting brouhaha ended with distillers moving south to what is now Kentucky, where farmers mostly grew corn, which was used to distill and age what was then called “corn-whiskey.”
It’s hard to believe, but it wasn’t until 1840 that corn-whiskey officially became known as bourbon, a name that had only been in use since the 1820s. One camp thinks the start of both the liquor and the use of the name bourbon began with a fire that burned the distillery of a Bourbon County, Kentucky, Baptist preacher/distiller named Elijah Craig. The frugal Craig used the resulting charred barrels for aging, which created a mellow whiskey with a light caramel color. Craig then sold his new and improved corn-whiskey in barrels marked with the source of his product, the 14-county upstate region of Kentucky known as “Old Bourbon.”
There are also those who swear that another resident of Bourbon County, distiller Jacob Spears, was the first to label his barrels as “Bourbon Whiskey.” Bourbon County, Kentucky, was formed in 1785, and at the time had a plethora of small distillers. So, too, there’s speculation that all these entrepreneurs, and not only Spears, used the name bourbon to distinguish their product from grain-based whiskey.
The New Orleans connection with bourbon is espoused by Louisville, Kentucky, historian Michael Veach. Considered bourbon’s unofficial ambassador, he points to the story of Louisville’s two Tarascon brothers, transplants from Cognac, France, who, around 1807, gambled on shipping Kentucky whiskey aged in charred barrels down to New Orleans. The reasoning for the venture, Veach says, is that French New Orleans was partial to cognac and brandies, which the Tarascon’s smooth whiskey was marketed as resembling. Eventually, folks were requesting the “whiskey sold on Bourbon Street,” which spurred the name bourbon whiskey.
Both Bourbon Street and Bourbon County, Kentucky, by the way, were named for the French dynasty of kings known as the Royal House of Bourbon.
Regardless of who invented or named it, bourbon is strongly associated with the American South, and Congress has even declared bourbon “America’s native spirit.” The standards for production are that it must be made in the U.S.; be at least 51 percent corn; be aged in new, charred oak barrels; distilled to no more than 160 proof (80 percent alcohol); entered into the aging barrel at no higher than 125 proof (62.5 percent alcohol); and bottled at 80 proof or more (40 percent alcohol). Straight bourbon must be aged at least two years, and cannot have added coloring, flavors or other spirits. Only blended bourbon can contain artificial coloring or flavors, and blends are allowed to contain up to 49 percent of other spirits.
Then there’s that misconception that bourbon must be distilled in Kentucky. Yes, the majority is distilled in Kentucky, but legally bourbon can be made in any state in the U.S. The catch is that Kentucky is the only state that can have its name on bourbon products.
But no matter how it’s labeled, if you need something to liven up your fruitcake or are putting together a bar for a party, don’t forget the bourbon. This golden-brown spirit may be the relatively new kid on the booze block, but it’s long been associated with the traditional Southern holiday season. And now that we know its name has a possible tie with New Orleans, well, we have just one more reason to break open a bottle.
Cynthia LeJeune Nobles is editor of “The Southern Table” cookbook series at LSU Press and author of “The Delta Queen Cookbook.” You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Sources: Veach, Michael R. “Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage” (Univ. Press of Kentucky, 2013); Kiniry, Laura. “Where Bourbon Really Got Its Name,” www.smithsonianmag.com; Faulkner, Theresa. “Bourbon History,” www.bourbonandwhiskey.com