Bourbon's Name Was Inspired By An 18th Century French Dynasty

Bourbon feels like it should not have anything to do with France. Made from corn and distilled mostly in Kentucky, bourbon is the star of the old fashioned and the mint julep. It is the most uniquely American spirit (via Difford's Guide). Even though it's enjoyed all over the country, the word "bourbon" evokes images of roads off the beaten path, country bars, and ranchers making their way out West. It's about the farthest thing from the streets of Paris you could imagine.

That image isn't too far off from bourbon's real history, either. It's a drink born of America's melting pot and frontier necessity. According to The Flaviar Times, Scotch-Irish immigrants in the American South crossed over the Appalachians after the Revolutionary War, bringing their whiskey-making skills with them. Combined with locally produced corn, which was a Native American staple, American oak trees, and sour mash from German settlers, they were able to produce a new spirit in their new land. But despite being produced across an ocean and thousands of miles from France, this most democratic of liquors ended up named after a French monarch. How did that happen?

The House of Bourbon ruled France during the American Revolution

Those settlers that crossed into Kentucky may have been independent frontiersmen, but they got a little push from a few big-name American leaders. According to TimeOut, they were incentivized to move by President George Washington in response to the 1791 Whiskey Rebellion. At the time, Kentucky was part of Virginia, and Thomas Jefferson (who was the state's governor) gave out land to settlers as an encouragement to produce whiskey. He named the county after the French Bourbon dynasty, which Kentucky History states was to honor the royal family for providing aid during the revolution. The new drink was named after the county where it was produced.

Or was it? The Bourbon-named location that lent the drink its name isn't totally clear. Smithsonian Magazine notes that the story of bourbon being named after the county doesn't appear until 1870. The other theory is that the spirit is named after Bourbon Street in New Orleans. The Crescent City was the main destination for Kentucky liquor that was shipped down the Mississippi, and Bourbon Street was the bar capital of the city, even back then. Thus the drink was named after the street where it was most often consumed. That doesn't change who it's named after, however, because Bourbon Street was also named after the French monarchs. Turns out kings get a lot of stuff named after them, enough to make any one name hard to trace.