Tuesday, November 3, 2015
The Real Bourbon County
It is often pointed out that no bourbon whiskey is made in Bourbon County, Kentucky. That is true today, but it was not always the case.
Bourbon County was established in 1786, while Kentucky was still part of Virginia. It covered a vast portion of what today is northeastern Kentucky. Virtually everything north and east of Lexington was Bourbon County. It was during that period and shortly thereafter that corn-based whiskey made in the region came to be called ‘Bourbon County whiskey’ and, ultimately, just ‘bourbon.’
The much smaller, modern Bourbon County, a sliver of the original, is adjacent to Lexington’s Fayette County. The county seat of modern Bourbon County is Paris. (It was originally named Hopewell.) When all of these places were named we loved the French for helping us wrap up the Revolution. They, by the way, had not yet had their revolution, so the French folk we liked were the aristocrats and royal family who then ran the place. The surname of France’s royal family at
the time was Bourbon.
There were at least twelve distilleries in Bourbon County during the second half of the 19th century. Only a few made it into the 20th and none came back after Prohibition.
Some of the bourbon brands that originated in Bourbon County are Peacock, Sam Clay, Paris Club, Old Cabin, Kentucky Belle, Daniel Boone, Old Pugh and Old Barton.
The Shawhan family had a long distilling history in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Missouri. They established their first Kentucky distillery in Bourbon County in 1788. The family and distillery are long gone but the name remains on a little town alongside the railroad tracks close to the Harrison County border.
The Bourbon County distillery that seems to have lasted longest was just outside Paris and known as the Paris Distillery (RD #77). Established in 1860 it had many owners, eventually selling out to the Whiskey Trust which gave it the Julius Kessler name. That name lives on as a brand of American blended whiskey.
The Paris Distillery closed for good in 1913. Today Bourbon County is home to about 20,000 souls, most of them in or around Paris. One of the oldest remaining buildings, from 1788, is the Duncan Tavern. Unfortunately no longer a tavern, it houses the state headquarters of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Downtown Paris is quaint and has many well-kept 19th century buildings. Like most of the area around Lexington, the big attraction is horse farms, of which there are about 100 in Bourbon County. Horse breeding is the county’s biggest industry. Kentucky’s horse farms primarily raise thoroughbreds for racing.
Antique shops are another popular attraction.
You may have read that Bourbon County is dry, as are about half of Kentucky's 120 counties. It is not and never has been. Soon it may no longer be true that bourbon isn't made there. A micro-distillery, Hartfield & Co., recently opened in Paris.