Bourbon is one of Kentucky’s most treasured products and an important part of the state’s identity. The exact origins of the spirit as it’s known today are a bit of a mystery, but 19th-century preacher Elijah Craig is widely considered to be a key player in the beginning of bourbon.
According to Lindsey Apple, a retired professor of history from Georgetown College, Elijah Craig was a religious man who was jailed in Virginia for preaching without being licensed.
“What drove Elijah Craig west was religious freedom and the ability to make money,” says Apple.
Craig came to Kentucky and established a town called Lebanon, which was later renamed Georgetown after George Washington. Like many early U.S. citizens pushing into the western frontier, Craig was a jack-of-all-trades, and he had an impact on Georgetown in many ways.
“Craig encourages the creation of a school,” says Apple. “He later becomes involved in the Rittenhouse Academy and later, Georgetown College. He created grist mills. When the editor of the Kentucky Gazette put out word that they needed paper, [Craig] starts a papermill.”
Craig was a distiller on the side, and it may be his positive reputation in other industries that put him in his prominent place in bourbon history and lore, according to Michael Veach, author of Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage.
“He was an early Kentucky preacher and he was a distiller, and that is why in the 1870s when the distilling industry was fighting the temperance movement, they decided to proclaim him the father of bourbon,” says Veach. “They thought, well, let’s make a Baptist preacher the father of bourbon, and let the temperance people deal with that.”
There are a few different legends about how Craig created bourbon. One is that a barn fire charred the inside of some of the barrels he used for his whiskey. When aged in those charred oak barrels, the whiskey took on some of the color and flavor, giving it a more mellow, sweeter flavor.
Another story is that, as a frugal pastor, Craig wanted to be able to reuse barrels that had previously stored fish and salt. In that story, he intentionally charred the inside of the oak barrels to remove the fish flavor before aging his whiskey within.
“Bourbon today has to be aged in charred oak barrels,” says Apple. “That’s what happened according to the story, even if by accident. As a historian, there’s no evidence that [Craig] was the first. There’s no evidence that he wasn’t.”
Josh Hafer is Senior Manager of Corporate Communications for Heaven Hill brands, which produces a line of Elijah Craig bourbons.
“We wanted to create a brand that recognized a great pioneer in the whiskey-making industry, so we chose Elijah Craig,” says Hafer, acknowledging that Craig’s legend may be bigger than his actual contribution to bourbon history.
“Elijah Craig is definitely solidly planted in the bourbon heritage of Kentucky,” says Hafer. “Bourbon drinkers accept the stories and exaggerations, because what’s important is what’s in the bottle. If it tastes good, they’ll buy it. If it doesn’t, they don’t care what you say. They won’t buy it.”
This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2503, which originally aired on October 19, 2019. Watch the full episode.