What is the origin of the word Bourbon, and what does Bourbon Whiskey and Bourbon Coffee have to do with each other?
See if you can guess the right answer from the following:
A) A French King
B) A Region Of The World
C) A Celtic God
By the end of this post, you will know the answer.
First up though, let’s define what a Bourbon is, in both Coffee and Whiskey terms.
To understand what Bourbon means in coffee terms, we need to have a quick understanding of coffee and where it comes from.
All coffee comes from coffee plants, of which there are two main varieties; Robusta and Arabica. There are two more, but they are much rarer and the full explanation is for another time.
Now, these are the ‘natural’ occurring coffee plants (or ones that grow without any human intervention). Within each variety, there are several cultivars, which means varieties that have been moved and altered in some way by humans. This could mean that they have been taken away from their natural habitat and grown in a new environment or country for example.
There are a lot of cultivars, and this is where most of the differences in coffee can be tasted.
This is what brings us to Bourbon, as it is a cultivar of the arabica variety!
Bourbon (which also has several of its own sub-cultivars) originates from a plant brought from Yemen to La Reunion, a French island off the coast of Madagascar in the 17th Century, which at the time was called ‘The Isle of Bourbon’.
Later these plants were taken to Latin America and Africa.
We will leave the story of the Bourbon Coffee there for now, as I’m sure you can see the start of the connections.
Now, let’s move over to Bourbon Whiskey.
First we need to look at what makes a Whiskey be classed as a Bourbon?
The law states that a Bourbon must be:
1) Its mash (the mix grains the whiskey is distilled from) must be at least 51% Corn.
2) It must be distilled at 160 Proof or less.
3) When put into ageing, it must be no more than 120 Proof.
4) The ageing containers must be made of new, charred oak.
5) It must be bottled at 80 Proof or more.
6) It must be produced in the United States.
Moving looking closer at that last point, some people think that it must be produced in a certain region of the US, but that isn’t actually the case as can be seen in some bottles such as Hudson Baby Bourbon, which is made in New York, but I digress.
Back to the name Bourbon!
The history of Bourbon Whiskey is quite varied, and there are several ‘versions’ of its origin story.
Arguably it comes from the Kentucky Baptist, Elijah Craig, who was the first to use charred oak casks to age whiskey and thus gave it the unique taste and colour. The area around Kentucky was called Bourbon County, and the barrels containing the whiskey had the name stamped on them before transport, leading to its contents being called Bourbon. This is just one of the proposed reasons it got its name.
Another is that of New Orleans’ ‘Bourbon Street’, where the Kentucky drink was sold as a cheaper alternative to French Cognac.
Whichever story you want to take as true, doesn’t affect the origin of the name as we will now see!
HISTORY OF THE WORD BOURBON
We’re going to look at this in reverse because that’s technically going to make more sense here, trust me.
First a quick recap. We now know that Bourbon Whiskey was named either from Bourbon Country, or Bourbon Street. And Bourbon Coffee after Isle of Bourbon where it was grown.
Now, all three of these places were named after the same people: The House of Bourbon, which was a European Royal House of French Origin. The Bourbon Kings ruled France in the 16th Century and also held thrones in Spain, Naples and Sicily. There are even current monarchs of Spain and Luxembourg that are descended from the house.
The Isle of Bourbon was named in 1649 by the French during their colonization of it during the reign of the House of Bourbon.
Let’s jump over to North America now to Bourbon Street. As you may already be guessing it was also named after the House of Bourbon. During the 1690s the French claimed Louisiana, and New Orleans was founded in 1718. By 1721 royal engineer Adrien de Pauger was designing the street layout for New Orleans and was in the process of naming the streets. Choosing French Royal houses and Catholic Saints he named one of them, Rue Bourbon. Once the Americans regained the ownership of the area, they translated the names to English, hence Bourbon Street.
NEXT UP, BOURBON COUNTY
Bourbon County is located in the state of Kentucky and was named in 1785 after the House of Bourbon, in honour of Louis XVI of France (yes, that’s the one that was married to Marie Antoinette and was beheaded in the French Revolution if you are wondering) for his assistance in the American Revolutionary War.
So, we could end there, and say that all Bourbons were named after the House Of Bourbon. Which is quite a nice way to end?
I went a step further! Why was House of Bourbon, called Bourbon!?
Well, heading back in time, the House Of Bourbon traces back through the 1500s when the House was made up of the Dukes Of Bourbon, when lords known as the Archembaults, married into the royal family. The Archembaults all came from a town called Bourbon l’Archembaults so they collectively took the name Bourbon to form the House of Bourbon.
The town got its name from the rulers (the Archembaults) and the name of a shrine that was in the area, named after a Celtic God, Borvo!
The Celtic God was known as the God of Healing and Spring Water, and the Gauls (a Celtic race) named areas of France where they found nice drinking springs after the God in its honour.
To answer the question at the beginning, it was ‘all of the above’. However, ultimately Bourbon is named after a Celtic god of Healing Water, and I couldn’t think of a more fitting origin for Coffee and Bourbon Whiskey personally!
I hope this little history lesson was entertaining, it was a bit of a whirlwind and there are many more intricacies to each section, so if you have any questions do let me know.