It is often claimed that Elijah Craig, a Kentucky Baptist minister who was involved in a number of enterprises, was the first brewer of what was to become Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey. However, none can bring forth any credible evidence that is contemporary with Craig. The true origin of Kentucky bourbon is shrouded in mystery.
Michael R. Veach explores the origins and development of bourbon in his book Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage, starting with “Farmer Distillers and the Whiskey Rebellion” in chapter one, and moving on to the origin of bourbon in chapter two. Among other candidates, he mentions Evan Williams, another top contender for the first bourbon brewer.
Veach says that Reuben Durret first made this assertion in 1892, claiming that Evan Williams had brewed whiskey as early as 1783, and saying that Williams’s whiskey “had been distilled from corn.” However, hard evidence, a receipt of ship’s passage, has Williams sailing from London to Philadelphia on the Pigoe in May of 1784. Also, other distillers had come to Kentucky earlier, such as Jacob Myers in 1779; and Joseph and Samuel Davis in the same year.
Elijah Craig became a leading candidate for first bourbon brewer in the late 1800’s, due to an 1808 history of Kentucky written by Richard Collins, 60 years after Craig died. Collins relied on circumstantial evidence for his claim, stating that Craig had owned a fulling mill at Royal Spring near Georgetown, Kentucky, and, since the first bourbon was made in 1789 at a mill in Royal Spring, Craig must have been the distiller. But, according to Veach, no contemporary evidence ties Craig to being the first bourbon producer and other evidence helps rule him out. An 1827 newspaper clipping reports a toast given by the distiller Lewis Sanders, at a dinner in Frankfurt:
The memory of Elijah Craig, the founder of Georgetown, Kentucky. A philosopher and Christian – an useful man in his day. He established the first fulling mill, the first paper mill and the first rope walk in Kentucky. Honor to whom honor is done.
That Sanders, a distiller, does not mention the distillation of bourbon among these enterprises does not bode well for the claim that Craig was the first bourbon brewer, or even that he was a brewer of note. It suggests that whiskey distillation was a sideline or just one of many enterprises, but not a major one.
Veach also puts to rest legends of Elijah Craig having been the first to age his bourbon in charred barrels, a process used as far back as the Roman Empire and adopted in the fifteenth century by the French to flavor and color brandy and cognac. It has been claimed that Craig reused barrels that fish or nails had been shipped in, and charred their insides to remove any offending residue that would affect his whiskey. These barrels, Veach says, would not have been watertight, making them obviously unsuitable for aging whiskey. Another story has Craig making his own barrels from materials burned in the distillery cooperage. This makes no sense, since if barrel staves had been burned in such a fire, they would only be charred on one side, so would have been usable without Craig having to char them on the inside. Perhaps the best argument, though, is that someone of Craig’s standing would have been unlikely to have invented this process out of the blue, and risked his reputation on whiskey aged in charred barrels if he had not already known of the efficacy of the process.
This story is only one of many fascinating questions explored in the book. We may never know the true origin of bourbon whiskey, just as we may never know why it came to be called bourbon in the first place, the next question Veach asks. Not knowing doesn’t mean there can be no theories, and the author advances some credible ones, based on the existence of a whiskey tax, and the likely profit to be made on unaged whiskey. After the the origin of bourbon, the next chapters cover the Industrial Revolition and the Ditilling Industry, Distillers and Rectifiers, Taxation and Regulation, Prohibition, The end of Prohibition and World War II, Boom and Then Bust, and On into the Twenty-first Century. If you are interested in the history, process, and myths of bourbon whiskey, as well as how it went from a low-brow alternative to Scotch, to a top-shelf spirit, Veach’s book is for you. Informative and entertaining the book “shines a light on [bourbon whiskey’s] pivotal place in our national heritage, presenting the most complete and wide-ranging history of bourbon available.”