Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Elijah Craig Did Not Invent Bourbon.

Elijah Craig is a brand of bourbon made by Heaven Hill Distilleries. It comes as a 12-year-old or an 18-year-old, both excellent.

Elijah Craig was also a real person, c. 1738-1808, a Kentucky pioneer, community leader, entrepreneur, and Baptist minister.

But he did not invent bourbon whiskey.

The durable but unsubstantiated claim that Elijah Craig ‘invented’ bourbon can be traced to Richard Collins and his 1874 History of Kentucky. Collins does not identify Craig by name, but writes that "the first Bourbon Whiskey was made in 1789, at Georgetown, at the fulling mill at the Royal spring." This claim is included, without elaboration or substantiation, on a densely-packed page of "Kentucky Firsts." Since Craig operated "the fulling mill at the Royal spring" in that year, the "invention" is attributed to him.

There are several major problems with the claim. First, what made Craig's whiskey different from other whiskey made in the region? Second, the Georgetown site was never in Bourbon County, so if the place name and the whiskey have to go together, Craig cannot be the originator. In fact, the name 'Bourbon whiskey' was applied to all whiskey from that region beginning early in the 19th century but the style of whiskey we now call bourbon didn't really evolve until many years later, in about the middle of the century, long after Craig’s death.

The Craig claim has been convenient. His ministerial vocation was played up by wet forces in the run-up to Prohibition. When something has an inventor the story of its origin is much easier to tell, but actual history is seldom so neat. Whatever else it may be, historically the Craig claim is unsupported.


John said...

Chuck, I highly disagree with you on this point about Elijah Craig. To quote myself from my own blog, which I will not plug here:

"Back in 1792, a Catholic Minister and accomplished Whiskey distillerator named Elijah Craig -- who invented the Rick House, Fulling Mill and Paper Mill -- upon realizing that he'd distillated too much whiskey, decided to store the leftovers in an empty old sugar barrel. A month later, after having run out of whiskey in his house, Elijah Craig decided to tap the sugar barrel he stored in his hay barn. Upon drawing the Whiskey from the barrel, he immediately realized that the bourbon had turned from clear to a light reddish hue. Once he tasted it, he knew he was on to something.

You cannot dispute fact, Chuck. And the above is indeed fact.

Barleywhiner said...

I don't know whether he invented Bourbon, but the 12 year old is a great bargain. I don't get mad if my wife drinks it with ginger ale!

Anonymous said...

I would like to know the source for John's historical input. This is the first I have read about the sugar barrel, and also the first I am reading that Craig was a Catholic Minister instead of Baptist.

Anonymous said...

Well, nevermind my previous comment. I should have checked THE source when asking for a source.

Chuck Cowdery said...

John has access to higher forms of truth that go beyond mere factual accuracy.

John said...

Chuck, thanks for the props. I am indeed outer-worldly when it comes to all things bourbon.

To the Anon's, I have plenty of historical facts to back my stories. Please just ask to provide and I will do so in a moment's notice.

Please remember this - and, I am no braggert but - I have more knowledge of bourbon than the entire bourbon-knowing populus and sometimes my stories sound so outlandish that you think, This has got to be a joke. When that happens, please remember one thing. Often times, truth is much stranger than fiction.