The link between bourbon biscuits and bourbon whiskey

Bourbon biscuit Image copyright ALAMY

Have you ever wondered how bourbon whiskey got its name? Or bourbon biscuits for that matter. What's their connection with the French royal family? And who are these royal Bourbons anyway? Where do they come from?

The answer lies in an obscure part of central France - Le Bourbonnais. That's where a dynasty of local seigneurs first emerged more than 1,000 years ago - they went on to wear the crowns of France, Spain, Naples and Sicily, and lend their name to those biscuits.

In the beginning was the god, a Celtic god - Borvo. He was the god of healing and of spring water. Shrines to Borvo could be found across France, where Gauls found they liked the water that came naturally from the ground.

One such place is now the small town of Bourbon l'Archambault. This is the vast, lost middle of France. The folds of the land are deeper as we head south to the Massif Central, so the countryside is rounded and fecund, a lot of forest, a lot of pasture for the lazy white Charolais cows.

Bourbon l'Archambault is Bourbon after Borvo the God, and Archambault after nine of its first rulers or seigneurs. There was Archambault the First in about 950 and Archambault the ninth 200 years later.

At the start of that period, it must have been a bit like the television series Game of Thrones. The French crown in Paris was distant to the point of irrelevance. Instead across the country petty lords imposed a new territorial order after the confusion of the preceding centuries.

The first Archambaults built a castle - and the remains of its 13th Century successor, three massive towers, still dominate the land.

Image copyright ALAMY

So how did this particular group of early mediaeval thrusters - no doubt every bit as nasty as the thugs of House Lannister or House Baratheon - end up where the rest failed to: on the throne in the French equivalent of King's Landing, ie Paris?

Well the story is just as long and full of war and treachery as the great George RR Martin himself could have made it.

First the Archambaults were named Dukes of Bourbon after marrying into the royal family. Then in the 1500s, Duke Charles III, who as leader of the royal army bears the title Constable of France, does the unmentionable and defects to the king's arch-enemy, the Holy Roman Emperor. The Bourbon estates are seized by the Crown; the Bourbon name is mud. But now the brutal wars of religion between Catholic and Protestant are raging in France.

The head of the Bourbon house has married the heiress to Navarre, a mountain kingdom way to the south. Their son Henry is brought up a Protestant, and he fights the kings in Paris. But after they all die, the last murdered by a monk, Henry is the legitimate heir. So in order to reconcile his enemies he converts to Catholicism - Paris, he says, is worth a mass - and becomes Henri IV, France's first Bourbon king.

House of Bourbon

Image copyright ALAMY
Image caption The Siege of Paris, France, 1589-90 by Henry IV
  • Members descended from Louis I, Duke of Bourbon 1327-1342
  • Provided kings of France from 1589-1792 and 1814-1830, after which another Bourbon reigned as king of the French until 1848
  • They have also been kings or queens of Spain, dukes of Parma, kings of Naples and of Sicily, kings of Etruria and ducal sovereigns of Lucca

Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica

Over the next three centuries the Bourbons' fame and influence spread further. After the War of Spanish Succession in the early 1700s, Bourbons took the crown of Spain (and they've still got it). Other branches ruled as kings in Naples and Sicily, as dukes in Parma and Luxembourg.

In France all those be-wigged Louis in Versailles were Bourbons. One lost his head in the revolution, but they came back after Napoleon and today the pretenders to the French throne - the two of them - are both from the Bourbon family.

There's even supposed to be a branch of the Bourbons in India, descended from some royal nephew or other in the 18th Century. They live in Bhopal, look thoroughly Indian, and are the subject of sporadic magazine features.

Today back in the Bourbonnais these affairs are a distant memory. The main town Moulins was the capital of the later dukes, but it is a drab place now - like so many provincial French towns its supposed medieval charm a fiction of the tourist brochures.

Bourbon l'Archambault is lovely though, as is the 1000-year-old priory of Souvigny where many of the dukes are buried. There I also discovered the tomb of one Prince Sixtus of Bourbon-Parma, brother-in-law of the last emperor of Austro-Hungary, and the man behind an obscure peace initiative in World War One known as the Sixtus affair.

Image copyright Thinkstock

And so finally to the whiskey. What's the connection? Well, the home of bourbon whiskey is said to be Bourbon county in Kentucky, and it was so named after the war of American independence as a gesture of thanks to the French king, the Bourbon Louis XVI, for his help against the Brits.

Or it comes from Bourbon Street, home of the carousers of New Orleans, a town which was of course founded by the French and named after the Bourbon Duke of Orleans, son of Louis XIV. Take your pick.

As for the biscuits, that's even easier. In fact the chocolate crunchy sandwich used to be called the Creola, but sometime in the 1930s a product manager at Peek Freans - drawing no doubt on some vaguely remembered cultural reference - decided that the name Bourbon sounded, ooh, I don't know, a bit posher, a bit French, and a bit royal too.

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