In early days of Kentucky distilling history, the Ohio River was the natural trade route for goods produced by the settlers. Kentucky is blessed with many navigable rivers and it was easier to load trade goods on a flatboat and send them down river than to load them on mules or wagons and send them overland to the markets on the east coast. New Orleans was the down river destination as it was the city with a port to take tobacco, whiskey and other trade goods to the markets in Europe and the east coast.
Before 1803 and the Louisiana Purchase, this was not a very reliable trade route. For most of that time, trade was prohibited by the Spanish government of Louisiana. Trade still took place but it was an illegal trade until the 1790s and then there were tariffs on the goods brought into the Spanish territory, making it less profitable to Kentuckians.
If you decided to go down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans by flatboat, this early trade route was long and dangerous. There were Native Americans and river pirates that were willing to kill you and take your trade goods and your scalp, for the British were paying for scalps in Detroit. Once you got to New Orleans, you sold your goods and your flatboat. You could not take the boat back upstream and the boats were a source of lumber for the people of New Orleans. Many New Orleans houses were built with Kentucky lumber. You would then have to find a place to stay while doing your business in New Orleans. There were hotels, but many of the Kentuckians would rent a room from residents of the city.
Once your business was done, you needed to get back home to Kentucky. You had two choices. First and most expensive but safest way to get back into Kentucky, was to book passage on a ship traveling back to the ports on the east coast and come back into Kentucky by either the Cumberland Gap or Down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh. The other choice was to walk or ride a horse back up the Natchez Trace. This was much more dangerous as there were still Native Americans and bandits willing to separate you from your hard earned cash and your scalp. Legend has it that this is where Kentucky’s Horse Industry comes from as these travelers would purchase the fastest horses they could get in New Orleans for the journey back into Kentucky. Fast horses made it easier to get away from Native Americans and bandits.
That all changed in 1803, when Louisiana became part of the United States. There was still the threat of danger from Native Americans and pirates/bandits until The War of 1812 ended that for the most part, but trade became more profitable and eventually safer. With the invention of the steamboat in the late 1810s, travel became quicker as well. What was a six months to a year long trip in the 18th century, became a trip of a couple of months.
We know from records at the Filson Historical Society and the Kentucky Historical Society, that before 1820, whiskey was not a profitable trade good in New Orleans. The cost of whiskey in this period was the same in New Orleans as it was in Kentucky. That changed in the 1820s. It is not a coincidence that the first written mention of “Bourbon” was in a Kentucky newspaper in 1821. It is my theory that “Bourbon” was created to sell in New Orleans because the people there were drinking French Brandy and not the unaged Kentucky whiskey being sold before the Louisiana Purchase. French Brandy was aged in charred barrels, so Kentuckians started aging their whiskey in charred barrels to mimic the taste of French Brandy, I also believe that the term “Bourbon” comes from the New Orleans connection, Bourbon Street, where many Kentuckians were staying in rooms rented from residents of the city.
Bourbon and New Orleans have a rich heritage together. This heritage dates back to the 18th century trade in part, but really starts in the 1820s with the introduction of steamboat travel and trade.