Reading back Tuesday's post about Elijah Craig, I got to thinking about it.
Since Collins is the sole source for such a pivotal claim in bourbon history, it bears closer examination. First, Collins (in 1874) uses the term 'bourbon whiskey' without defining it, either there or anywhere else in the book. That suggests he was confident his readers would understand the term the same way he did. Although we don't know exactly what that was, the inclination is to assume that 'bourbon whiskey' meant then what it does now. Did it? Is that a fair assumption? Maybe not.
Second, why did he clearly point to Craig without naming him? If you read the rest of the page, it is what in 1874 may have passed for a light diversion in the midst of a serious enterprise, a sidebar meant primarily to entertain. Therefore, I have always assumed, he was sloppy about it, just making a list from odds and ends in his notes, but not treating it as seriously as he did most of the work. What if I'm wrong? What if he was more purposeful than I've ever suspected? And, if so, what was he trying to say?
Henry Crowgey in his book, Kentucky Bourbon, The Early Years of Whiskeymaking, mentions a 1789 letter from Craig to his legal representative that may shed some light.
In the letter, Craig announces that he has a man from Pennsylvania "coming to make corn." Who was this man, and why was the event so memorable? Are we right to assume that "to make corn" means to make corn whiskey?
Perhaps Collins is coy about naming Craig because he is referring to something done by this "man from Pennsylvania" at Craig's behest, but not by Craig himself.
Craig is usually ruled out as the 'inventor' of bourbon because routine aging in new, charred oak barrels came much later, probably in the mid-19th century.
But maybe Collins is talking about something else. We know Kentuckians were making whiskey from corn before 1789, maybe the 1789 innovation was the deliberate addition of rye to the recipe. Perhaps that was the initial distinction between corn whiskey and bourbon whiskey.
Today, most bourbons contain a little bit of rye, 8 to 15 percent in most cases, to give the beverage a little more flavor and, more to the point, a distinctive flavor that is neither corn whiskey nor rye whiskey, but bourbon whiskey, even with little or no aging. Pennsylvania was known for making rye whiskey just as Kentucky was known for corn. Perhaps this mysterious man at Rev. Craig's fulling mill brought the two together and that is what Collins was really memorializing on his page of 'Kentucky Firsts.'