Fairly early on in this little project, I repeated a common story about the origins of bourbon whiskey. While Elijah Craig was certainly an influential man in his day and age, and nobody doubts that he was one of Kentucky’s early distillers, he likely does not deserve to be called the Father of Bourbon.
The fact is, the aging of corn whiskey in charred oak barrels, an innovation with which Craig is often credited, probably didn’t come about until a century after Craig’s death. Beyond that, the site of Craig’s distillery is not, and never was, within the bounds of Bourbon County in any of it’s various incarnations.
The truth about the origin of the name “Bourbon Whiskey” is, to me, far more interesting and entertaining than the story of a Baptist preacher. Maybe that’s because it involves my home town: Maysville (née Limestone), KY.
You see, back in the dizzle, the state now known as Kentucky was part of Virginia. Among the five huge Virginia counties that would later become Kentucky were Fayette County and, northeast of that, Bourbon County (both named in honor of the French following the Revolutionary War). Over the years, Bourbon County was subdivided into 34 smaller counties, including the current Bourbon County and my childhood home, Mason County, but the region continued to be referred to as “Old Bourbon”.
Situated on the Ohio River at the northern end of Old Bourbon, Limestone was an important port where the region’s tobacco, hemp, and other commodities were shipped down-river to New Orleans. When the region’s farmer-distillers began exporting their corn whiskey, the barrels moving through the port had “Old Bourbon Whiskey” stamped on the barrel heads to identify their point of origin.
The folks down-river misunderstood the stamp and assumed that bourbon was a type of whiskey and these barrels were full of aged bourbon whiskey. The folks down-river were clamoring for more of that old bourbon whiskey. Kentuckians being the shrewdbusinessmen they are, they knew a golden opportunity when they saw it. It wasn’t long before every barrel coming out of Kentucky, not just the ones from Old Bourbon, was being labeled “Bourbon Whiskey”.
I’d like to thank Charles K. (Chuck) Cowdery for setting me straight on the history of bourbon whiskey. If you haven’t already, you should get your hands on his book and his e-book and start following his blog.