We know exactly why whisky is called whisky, which is a bit of a rarity in the spirits world. Whisky is the anglicized version of the Gaelic word uisce, which translates to water. The longer version of the name was taken from the old Irish uisce beatha, meaning water of life, which was borrowed from Latin’s Aqua Vitae.
We have some excellent theories about how bourbon got its name, but we can never really be sure. Was it named after Bourbon County? Perhaps, but the dates don’t quite match up, as people were referring to bourbon whiskey well before Bourbon County or the Old Bourbon region were incorporated. Bourbon historian Mike Veach has done a great deal of research on the subject and has unearthed bourbon labels that originated in the 1850s. The claim that bourbon was named after Bourbon County doesn’t actually appear in print until the 1870s.
Veach’s theory is that the name bourbon originated in New Orleans and was popularized by Bourbon Street. It began when two men, the Tarascon brothers, relocated from Cognac, France, to Louisville. The brothers had a plan to win over the French-leaning residents of New Orleans. At the time, cognac was popular in the city, but expensive. By aging Kentucky whiskey in charred oak barrels, the brothers believed that the whiskey would taste more like the cognac that the French Louisiana residents preferred. And the whiskey’s voyage down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers provided a perfect window for aging the spirit.
With the help of Louisville’s extreme climate shifts, which created a more flavorful whiskey as the spirit moved in and out of the wood, and the time spent aging on the rivers, the brothers created an undeniably delicious whiskey. Soon New Orleans revelers began to identify their preferred spirit as the whiskey sold on Bourbon Street, and asked for it by name. Knowing a great thing when they tasted it, bourbon whiskey’s popularity began to spread. It’s a fascinating story and Veach does excellent work, but the truth is that we may never know for certain how bourbon became bourbon.