Everyone loves the Elijah Craig line of bourbon, but do you know anything about the man behind the brand? Gather round little babies and hear the legend of Elijah Craig – the man credited with the invention of bourbon. But as you will read, Elijah Craig is as much a part of American history as any of the Founding Fathers!
Elijah Craig – The Revolutionary
Long before the freedom of speech, religion, and press were part of America’s identity, our primordial country was ruled by Anglicans tied to the church of England. These religious overlords required anyone preaching in the New World to have a license and preach according to European doctrine.
A rambunctious 26-year old named Elijah was converted to the Baptist faith in 1764 and preached sermons out of his tobacco barn. He was ordained a Baptist minister and co-founded the Blue Run Church in Virginia in 1766. Needless to say, this pissed the establish off a tad. The co-founders of the church included two Black members – a fact that pissed the establishment off substantially more.
Elijah Craig grew into a true revolutionary whose name should be juxtaposed with the likes of George Washington and James Madison. Minister Craig was a man who risked prison for his beliefs (he was jailed twice for preaching without a license) but fought back by working with Patrick Henry and James Madison to legally protect American citizens from state and federal religious persecution. Thanks in no small part to his efforts, we have the First Amendment that serves as the cornerstone of our democracy today.
To protect his mixed race congregation from religious and social persecution, he he took his show on the road. In what became known as the Traveling Church, Craig and his brother led an exodus of more than 600 people out of Virginia and into Georgetown, Bourbon County, Kentucky where they settled.
The Birth of Bourbon
At the height of the Revolutionary War, and France was proving to be an important ally in our war with our previous Anglican and British overlords. In 1780 the county of Kentucky in the Western region of Virginia was subdivided. One of these subdivisions was named Bourbon County, to show an appreciation for the French Royal House of Bourbon’s support.
Tomas Jefferson who was then serving as the Governor of Virginia (1779–1781), offered citizens sixty acres of land in Kentucky if they would migrate there, raise native corn, and turn it into whiskey. Not only was whiskey worth more than the corn it came from, but British blockades had cut off rum supplied from the Caribbean prompting the need for a American made spirits.
Any frontier farmer who raised more grain than he could eat or feed to his livestock could distill whiskey at home. If he didn’t own a still, he found a neighbor who did and gave him a portion of the whiskey as payment.
Whiskey had a patriotic flavor. It was an all-American drink, made in America by Americans from American grain, unlike rum, wine, gin, Madeira, brandy, coffee, chocolate, or tea, which had to be imported and were taxed.
All preaching and no play makes for dull frontier life, so Craig and company took Jefferson up on his offer and moved his Traveling Church to Bourbon County. It is rumoured he transported his whiskey in old charred barrels to New Orleans, and marked all of the barrels with the word ‘Bourbon’ (as in Bourbon County).
By the end of this long trip the Bourbon County Whiskey had taken on the charred oak color and flavor that the French residents of Louisiana loved. Reverend Elijah Craig’s barrels became known as ‘Bourbon Whiskey’, and thus bourbon had gained its name. In 1789, Elijah Craig founded his distillery and became the first Bourbon Master Distiller in history.
A Rare Intellect and Business Leader
Minister Elijah Craig was a man of rare intellect and business acumen. He founded the very first classical school in Kentucky in 1787. His advertisement in The Kentucky Gazette read:
“Education. Notice is hereby given that on Monday, 28 January next, a school will be opened by Messrs. Jones and Worley, at the Royal Spring in Lebanon Town, Fayette County, where a commodious house, sufficient to contain fifty or sixty scholars, will be prepared. They will teach the Latin and Greek languages, together with such branches of the sciences as are usually taught in public seminaries, at twenty five shillings a quarter for each scholar… ELIJAH CRAIG. LEBANON, December 27, 1787.”
His school was later linked to the Rittenhouse Academy, which Craig founded in 1798. Elijah Craig also donated land for the founding of Georgetown College, the first Baptist college founded west of the Allegheny Mountains. He built Kentucky’s first fulling mill (for cloth manufacturing), its first paper mill, its first rope factory (he made rope from hemp), and the first lumber mill at Georgetown.
Today, we continue to suckle from the teat of Minister Elijah Craig’s productivity. The church that he founded in Virginia? It still exists. His bourbon? It still exists. The schools that he founded or had a hand in? They all still exist – the most notable of which is Georgetown. Then there’s that little thing that we call the First Amendment that he had a strong influence in drafting.
Elijah Craig is a real American hero. The next time you take a sip of Elijah Craig, be sure to give the man a toast!