Thursday, June 14, 2018

Elijah Craig Did Not Make the First Bourbon



One of the most persistent bourbon myths is the one about Elijah Craig. Here is a typical example, from Alexis Lichine's New Encyclopedia of Wines & Spirits: "Early in the colonial history of America, a Baptist minister, Elijah Craig, established a still in Georgetown, Kentucky and began producing whiskey from a base of corn. The still is said to have been one of the first in Kentucky and customers in neighboring towns christened his product Bourbon County Whiskey, from the county of origin."

The myth can be traced to Richard Collins, whose History of Kentucky was published in 1874. 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, on a densely-packed page of short statements under the heading 'Kentucky firsts.' 

Collins does not attempt to substantiate the claim nor has any evidence ever been produced to support it. Craig was a real person�a major character in early Kentucky history�and he was a distiller. He also operated a fulling mill at the Royal Spring in 1789, so there is little doubt that Collins intended to attribute this milestone to Craig. What is lacking is any evidence that Craig�s whiskey was unique in its day, that it alone had somehow been elevated from the raw, green, corn distillate made throughout the frontier to the bourbon whiskey we know today.

In addition to a lack of any evidence to support the Collins claim, which was made almost 100 years after the fact, there is another, more significant problem about connecting the Craig claim to bourbon�s name. Craig's distilling operation was never in Bourbon County, even with the shifting of county boundaries that took place during Kentucky's early history. Craig didn�t move, but the boundaries did as new, smaller counties were created from older and larger ones. Craig's site was first in Fayette County (1780), then Woodford (1788), then Scott (1792), but never Bourbon. 

In Craig's day, making whiskey was commonplace, universally viewed as an economic and personal necessity. It was only much later, in Collins� time, that making and consuming whiskey became controversial. Collins himself sympathized with the prohibitionists who would eventually outlaw whiskey, but distillers and their supporters were quick to embrace his assertion that bourbon was 'invented' by a respected Baptist preacher. This does not explain why Collins attributed the invention of bourbon to Craig, but it does explain why that legend has endured.

Now, of course, it is in the interest of a certain distillery to keep the myth alive. 

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