Antedating and Origin of Bourbon Whiskey

Tue May 6 22:17:40 UTC 2014

The OED has "bourbon," as a reference to a kind of whiskey, from 1846.  Here's a few years earlier, from the Louisville Daily Journal (Jan. 20, 1840) (ProQuest Civil War Era):  "WHISKEY.-26 bbls old Bourbon Whiskey, a very fine article, rec'd this day and for sale [nov 29] HERAN & LEES."

Bourbon is usually supposed to have that name because it was originally made in Bourbon County, Kentucky.  In a 2013 article in Smithsonian Magazine,, a bourbon historian named Michael Veach argued that the story that the name 'bourbon' comes from Bourbon County doesn't even start appearing in print until the 1870s, and that the name really comes from Bourbon Street in New Orleans, where bourbon was sold.

I'm skeptical of Veach's etymology.  Early references to bourbon whiskey all come from Kentucky, where Bourbon County would have been far more familiar than Bourbon Street.  Here's an 1864 example supporting the traditional Bourbon County origin, from the Louisville Daily Journal (Apr. 9, 1864) (ProQuest Civil War Era):  "Pure Bourbon whiskey is highly commended by physicians for hygene purposes, and we all know its valuable social effects.  The difficulty of obtaining an old, reliable, and unadulterated article seems to increase daily, and we are pleased, therefore, to announce that Mr. R. W. Gist, late of the 9th Kentucky cavalry, but now connected with our city tobacco inspection, has received samples of seven different products direct from Bourbon county, which he has deposited at the drug-store of Messrs. Jefferson & Alford, corner of Seventh and Market streets.  He is prepared to sell at prices and in quantities to suit purchasers, and those who are not judges may rest assured of the perfect purity and mature age of these articles.  In a few days he will be in receipt of an invoice of Anderson county whiskey, which is also a superb article."

John Baker

The American Dialect Society -

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