In 1862, a U.S. Senator from Kentucky, Garrett Davis, declared in the house that Bourbon whiskey was named after Bourbon County: see page 35 of Gerald Carson’s The Social History Of Bourbon (1963). Davis was a lawyer in Paris, the chief town of Bourbon County. Carson considered him a credible source and properly so.
The 1860s and next decade is the time when people start to reflect on where the whiskey, by then of national and even larger repute, originated including not least its name.
In 1866 this news story appeared in the euphoniously named Baton Rouge Tri-Weekly Gazette & Comet. Datelined May 8, it was captioned “Bourbon County Distilleries of ‘Old Bourbon'”. “Old Bourbon” as used in this story clearly means the whiskey, not the original boundaries of Bourbon County.
The account is of particular interest because it appeared in the heart of the Bluegrass, and addressed forthrightly what had become a parlous topic. As Henry Crowgey noted in his 1971 The Early Years of Whiskeymaking, the history of distilling was treated scantily by 19th century historians of Kentucky. The reason: burgeoning Temperance attitudes. Whiskey’s heyday in terms of social acceptance had passed by about 1850. Due to pressure from Protestant denomination and other temperance advocates, whiskey had become an off-colour topic in approved circles. This was so even in its centres of production.
19th century Kentucky histories, both state and local, written by people such as Lewis Collins, Richard Collins, and William Henry Perrin are not without interest for the whiskey sleuth, but they are incomplete or omit key early data now presumably lost. For this reason, newspaper accounts are valuable especially those in or near the areas where Bourbon whiskey started. The press was more attuned to the needs of industry and local affairs than establishment writers. By nature too, the coverage was topical, and ephemeral. A story on distilling might cause knashing of some local tongues, but would be forgotten with the next days’ news.
The proof of news stories’ reliability is that, as I mentioned recently, it appears part of an 1872 story which claimed a German-American “genealogy” for Bourbon was adapted by Richard Collins for his expanded edition of his father’s state history, released in 1874.
The Baton Rouge story of 1866 is notable, first because it affirms that Bourbon took its name from Bourbon County, still the best explanation of Bourbon’s name in my view. But it does more than confirm Garrett Davis’s account, as it links the bourbon heritage of Harrison County to the fact that part of the County once formed part of Bourbon County. This is, I believe, the first time in the context of Bourbon history that a story referenced the fact that Bourbon County was once larger than by the mid-1800s. Garrett Davis’s account four years earlier isn’t specific in that sense and in my view, while important, is partly a “favourite son” explanation.
The Baton Rouge story also locates the origins of Bourbon in a specifically defined area of Bourbon and Harrison Counties, between Paris and Cynthiana. This is a distance of only some 15 miles. It mentions families associated with the origins of Bourbon in that stretch surnamed Shawhan, Keller, Ewalt, Cook, and also later figures named White and Magebbin. A Keller clearly was involved in early Bourbon distilling, as the 1872 story mentioned stated, he was one of the German-Americans it credited with devising Bourbon. Other research suggests to me his full name was Isaac Keller.
It may be noted the Licking River flows through Cynthiana, and this river was a key early avenue to get corn whiskey to the Ohio River and downriver to New Orleans, also as the 1872 story stated.
The 1866 account, taken with the 1872 one, doesn’t “prove” Bourbon originated in a small section of what now straddles Bourbon County and Harrison County. But it is good evidence of a strong connection between this Paris-Cynthiana axis and Bourbon’s development.
Let’s recall that 1866 is only 45 years after Bourbon whiskey is first named in a news ad, in 1821 in nearby Maysville, KY. 45 years isn’t that long, it is like someone in Ontario remembering the origins of ice wine.
Note re image: the first image shown was obtained from the website of Cynthiana Main Street, a historical association, here. The second image is from the Town of Cynthiana’s website, here. Images are the sole property of their owner or duly authorized licensee as may be mentioned therein or otherwise. They are used for educational and historical purposes only, all feedback welcomed.