What makes it “Bourbon”?


This debate will go as long as there are whiskey aficionados in the room. I believe it takes its name from Bourbon County, located in central Kentucky. There are those who think it comes from Bourbon Street in New Orleans. It’s all in whom, or what, you want to believe.

Bourbon County was formed from Fayette County in 1785 which was still a part of Virginia. It was named to honor the French Royal Family (Kentucky was once part of Virginia – another nugget of information you may not have remembered from grade school). Many cities, counties, streets, and places in Kentucky are named for the French. They love the Fleur de Lis as much as New Orleans.

Bourbon County was the major shipping point for distilled spirits heading down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans. Barrels shipped from its ports were stamped with the county’s name. The story I heard when we toured Old Pogue Distillery was when they got to New Orleans the fine folks there liked the whiskey a little better that had “Bourbon” stamped on the end of the barrels. Kentucky whiskey soon became Bourbon.

Another interesting nugget of this whole shipping on the lazy river is the rocking of the barrels on the trip and the length of the voyage. As the barrels rock they give the bourbon a chance to spend more time mixing with the oak char. When we toured the Rum Distilleries in Barbados last week they talked about how the long sea voyage to England did such a great job of aging the Rum. They would ship off barrels of clear rum and by the time it got to the Mother Land it was an amber color and smooth. This story may sound a little familiar. Jefferson’s Bourbon is making bourbon they call “Ocean Aged” (read my review from February here). Trey Zoeller, Master Blender at Jefferson Bourbon, had an idea to try it and it’s a fantastic bourbon.

It was not the case many years ago, but today most bourbon barrels have a second life in England, Scotland, Ireland, and the Caribbean, to be used with another distilled spirit. By law you can only use a bourbon barrel once. Here is the final lesson for today. What makes it Bourbon?

It all boils down to 3 rules to make it a bourbon. To use that term on the bottle the bourbon must:

  1. Be at least 51 percent of the grain used in making the whiskey must be corn (most distillers use 65 to 75 percent corn).
  2. Age for a minimum of two years in new, white oak barrels that have been charred. There are different degrees of char.
  3. Having nothing added at bottling to enhance flavor, add sweetness, or alter the color.

Enjoy the ride whether it is across the ocean, down the river, or to your local store to pick up a bottle “of that Bourbon Whiskey.”

3 thoughts on “What makes it “Bourbon”?

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