The Father of Bourbon
Why we ask this question and tracing the roots of the Reverend Elijah Craig.
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Investigating the story of Elijah Craig
What is the source of this "father of" obsession we have? Who was the Father of Baseball; who was the "Father of the Internet;" who was the "Father of Radio;" and who was the "Father of Bourbon?"
There is a highly publicized answer that graces a bourbon bottles and historic signs around Kentucky, the Reverend Elijah Craig. I'll take a look at his life and see if we can spot his relationship to the origins of "America's Native Spirit."
Listen to the full episode with the player above or find it on your favorite podcast app under "Whiskey Lore." The full transcript is available on the tab above.
To the casual observer, it must have seemed like just another sleepy morning in the harbor - waves breaking gently on the shore, and the smell of sea salt in the air. But standing guard at the mouth of the harbor, a little island fortress, was in for anything but a normal day.
Over the last few months, a long simmering feud was coming to a head, and this fortress, that was built to shield the harbor from invaders, was now itself seen as a threat. Soldiers and ships were employed to starve out its unwelcomed occupants- resupply ships threatened and held off for months. The inhabitants of this little island were growing more and more desperate by the day - but they showed no signs of leaving.
Then, on this quiet April morning, the frustrations would come to a head and at 4:30 AM the men on this little island were stirred awake by the sound of a shell bursting above their heads.
And this was no subtle warning. With 43 cannons pointed at them from all points of the harbor, it was clear that this shell was the precursor to an onslaught of cannon fire.
With enough ammunition to pound the little island with cannon fire for 2 days, Confederate Brigadier General Beauregard gave the order to start the bombardment of the Federally held Fort Sumter - and so began the bloody American Civil War.
Inside the fort, Major Richard Anderson had a problem. Not only was he short on supplies, he was short on men. And while he outgunned the confederates 60-43, manning some of those guns would put his limited troops in imminent danger. He needed every advantage he could find. So he waited until daylight before returning fire.
And the honor of firing the first shot would go to Captain Abner Doubleday - a West Point graduate and veteran of the Seminole Wars and the Mexican-American War. The captain set his sights on one of the Confederate batteries at Cummings Point, he aimed and fired - and he watched as the shot sailed harmlessly past its intended target.
Although the bombardment resulted in zero casualties for the Federal troops, they were forced to see their inevitable defeat and surrendered the fort at 2:30 PM the next day.
But for Captain Abner Doubleday, firing the first shot for the Union Army (albeit inaccurately), was apparently too great an honor to let go unnoticed, and he set about branding himself as the “hero of Sumter.”
If that name Abner Doubleday sounds familiar, it should. And not because he fired the first shot of the Civil War for the Union Army. And not because of any of his other exploits during the war.
No, Abner Doubleday’s biggest claim to fame came some 44 years after the Civil War and 15 years after his death. It all came about as a paternity case that was being fought to protect America’s national pastime.
Baseball owes a great debt of gratitude to one of its great pioneers, Albert Goodwill Spalding. Once a premier pitcher for the National Association’s Boston Red Stockings, he would go on to own the Chicago White Stockings and help develop the modern National League.
He also built the Spalding sporting goods empire with his brother Walter that has supplied baseball players with bats, balls, and gloves for almost a century and a half.
But it was Albert’s ability as a promoter that earned him a spot in Baseball’s Hall of Fame. Albert was insistent that baseball was a truly American sport and he wanted to show it off to the world. So in 1888, he took twenty baseball players around the world to introduce the game - and his sporting goods - to emerging markets. They put on exhibition matches in Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, Egypt, Italy, France, and England.
By the time he returned to New York City, Albert was sure he had just secured baseball’s standing as a truly American sport and America’s great ambassador to the world.
Then in 1903, Henry Chadwick, a well respected baseball man, who also happened to be English by birth, wrote an article stating that baseball had in fact evolved from the British sports rounders. This was a slap in the face to Albert Goodwill Spalding who had put so much sweat and capital in developing baseball’s reputation as a truly American game.
Spalding needed to squash this potentially damaging line of thinking. So, he reached out to Chadwick and suggested forming a bipartisan commission that would research and settle once and for all the question of who invented baseball.
They chose former National League president Abraham Mills to head up the commission. His first plan of action was to put out a call for anyone with first hand knowledge of the game’s creator. The leading candidate was Alexander Cartwright of the New York Knickerbockers, a man who some believed modernized the rules of the game in 1845. But if he modernized them from rounders, then Henry Chadwick's claim could still hold weight.
Then on April 5, 1905, a letter arrived from one Abner Graves, a Colorado mining engineer originally from Cooperstown, New York, who claimed that a young Abner Doubleday had taught him and his friends a new game he called baseball. Later he put the date around 1839 to 1841.
Well, this was just too good to be true. Not only would Abner Doubleday serve to point out baseball’s American origin, but they would have an American war hero to boot.
But there was a glowing problem with this theory. Here we have a man who apparently had no shame in proclaiming himself as the “hero of Sumter” - yet he never seemed to let it fly that he also was the inventor of America’s national pastime. And he definitely would have been exposed to the game. It was spread north and south during the Civil War and professional leagues were flourishing during his lifetime. None of his writings nor his lengthy obituary mentioned even a passing interest in the game.
Yet the Mills Commission was giddy at the thought and couldn’t help itself. Abner Doubleday was given the title of Father of Baseball. And the town where Abner Graves suggested he learned the game from Doubleday, Cooperstown, New York was later chosen as the official home of Baseball’s Hall of Fame.
Years later, the Mills Commission’s findings would be overturned and for a time Alexander Cartwright became the Father of Baseball. Yet Cartwright’s claim is built on suspect evidence as well.
So, who is the Father of Baseball? And what is the reasoning behind this desperate need we have to find the “Father” of this or the “inventor” of that?
And it goes well beyond baseball?
My first experience with this idea of firsts came when my father got all up in arms about North Carolina introducing the words “First In Flight,” on their license plates. This is of course a reference to the Wright Brothers first powered airplane flight across the beach at Kitty Hawk.
My dad would say, North Carolina is far from first in flight. They were from Ohio and the state had nothing to do with supporting them. They only came for the wind. And the first flight was actually actually a hot air balloon in France in 1783.
Do you see where I get my nitpicking gene from?
Marconi is credited with the invention of radio, but his use of the Tesla coil for his experiments returned the patent to Tesla. However, Marconi is still referred to as the “Father of Radio.”
Tim Berners-Lee has been referred to as the inventor of the Internet. But as a policeman in the 1970s, my dad was sending messages back and forth to police stations in other cities through ARPAnet. And ARPAnet was developed by the Department of Defense in the 1960s. So good luck figuring out who the “Father of the Internet” is. Berners-Lee’s contribution was the hypertext protocol that simplified communications over the Internet. In other words, he is more accurately termed the father of the World Wide Web.
So who is the father of bourbon?
Elijah Craig...right? Well, that is what the marketing says.
Let’s see how a preacher from Kentucky came to earn the nickname the “Father of Bourbon.”
Born in, Orange County, Virginia in 1738, not much is known of the young Elijah Craig. His story really begins around the age of 26, when he made the fateful decision to go against the approved Anglican religion in favor of the less opulent Baptist faith. After seeing his two brothers ordained as Baptist ministers, Elijah followed suit. This decision would land him in jail multiple times, for preaching without a license from the Anglican church.
A solemn preacher, he found his voice through relationships with powerful allies like Patrick Henry and James Madison. His influence likely helped decommission the Anglican church in Virginia and touched the men who framed the first amendment of the federal Constitution. Yet, even after religious reform, Virginia continued to be a tough place for baptists to gain a fair shake, due to their anti-slavery rhetoric.
It was around 1781, when Elijah’s brother the Reverend Lewis Craig decided to take his Traveling Church to Kentucky County in western Virginia. Reverend Elijah Craig followed a year later. His congregation settled in Fayette County, which would soon be split into several other counties, including Old Bourbon County, however Craig’s property remained in Fayette and never was included in Bourbon County.
Elijah purchased 1000 acres and founded Lebanon, Kentucky, which years later would change its name to Georgetown in honor of George Washington. This became a time of great entrepreneurship for the Reverend. Over the next few years he built the area’s first paper mill and cloth producing-fulling mill at Royal Spring. He also established a lumber mill, grist mill, and he produced hemp rope.
Elijah was also determined to provide educational opportunities for the area’s youth. He established a school in 1787 and later donated land which became Georgetown College.
And he never lost his passion for preaching. He established the Great Crossing Church, and later he joined others in founding McConnell’s Church.
Lost in all of this is one of Elijah’s other business ventures. Elijah Craig was a distiller - and by some posthumous claims, a pretty good one. But the “Father of Bourbon?” How did this get attached to him?
Apparently it started by someone connecting the dots after reading a book by Richard and Lewis Collins that was written 66 years after Elijah Craig’s death. In the book, History of Kentucky there is a chapter called First Things In Kentucky with two passages of note:
“The First Fulling Mill (in 1789), and the first Rope-Walk in Kentucky were each established by the Rev. Elijah Craig, a Baptist preacher, at Georgetown.”
And then two paragraph’s later:
“The First Bourbon Whisky was made in 1789, at Georgetown, at the fulling mill at the Royal spring.”
There is little wrong with the idea of stringing these two ideas together. Both occur in Georgetown and the Rev. Elijah Craig’s paper mill was at Royal Spring, according to another passage in the book. But the author of the book never officially makes the connection between Craig and bourbon and offers no evidence for how they are able to confirm the “First Bourbon Whisky” claim.
Either the authors were privy to some proof that they never shared, or they didn’t discover through their research that it would be at least another 30+ years before bourbon would show up in the records as a name for Kentucky corn whisky.
So we’ll put the History of Kentucky book down to hearsay or lack of quality research.
It does beg the question though. If the authors of the History of Kentucky weren’t willing to make the connection, who did? According to his book Bourbon Curious, Fred Minnick says he found an article in a Feb 13, 1934 edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal. And it suggests Craig produced the first bourbon whiskey and cites the History of Kentucky book as its source.
Another case of a newspaper taking the authors of a book at its word. But unfortunately, during my research for is podcast, I have quickly learned just having something in a book or newspaper doesn’t make it true.
So that trail has gone cold.
Another reason Elijah Craig is specifically tied to being the “Father of Bourbon” is the claim that he was the first to char his oak barrels. Using new charred oak barrels became a requirement of bourbon in 1938 and is a standard that holds to this day. There is no disputing that charring barrels for bourbon was happening throughout the 19th century. But was the reverend the source for this technique?
There are two tales that have evolved about Elijah and both are covered on the official Elijah Craig bourbon website..
One states that there was an accidental fire at the mill (some suggest a barn). and that Elijah decided to put whisky in the burnt barrels anyway. This scenario cannot be dismissed at face value. Fires at mills and distilleries have always been a reality. And his thriftiness is also plausible as for all of his entrepreneurial prowess, he was apparently land rich and cash poor during his life, so the loss of the barrels may have been more cost than he could bear.
The other story suggests that he was reusing sugar barrels for aging and was impressed with how they improved the flavor. But this neglects the idea of char inside the barrels. However, other versions of this story suggest he was preparing barrels that formerly housed fish by charring them. How much charring do you have to do to get the smell and taste of fish out of oak? Just getting the Devil’s Cut out of whisky, according to Jim Beam, takes a special patented process. And something that most likely wasn’t possible without modern machinery.
There is very little evidence to substantiate the claim of Elijah Craig being the inventor of bourbon. So what about this “Father” claim. What does that actually mean?
According to MacMillan Dictionary, the father of phrase connects to “the man who first started something, or who first did it successfully”
No evidence shows Elijah Craig as the inventor of bourbon and there isn’t really evidence that he made anything like it, or even was living in an era where bourbon was being used as a term for whiskey. Just like Abner Doubleday, if he was the inventor, which is bourbon not mentioned in the same breath with Elijah Craig until 1934?
This leads us to think maybe someone was concocting this relationship for some personal gain or a cause, like Albert Goodwill Spalding’s attempt to Americanize the baseball story.
There is a theory that maybe having a Baptist preacher as the Father of Bourbon would cool the heels of the 1800s Temperance Movement? But if the Collins book was trying to achieve that, they were relying heavily on the reader’s powers of observation. It took a game of connect the dots 60 years after the book was written to create the relationship between the preacher and the First Bourbon Whisky. In fact, the Elijah Craig story doesn’t really take on wider acceptance until the 1950s, just before the name was trademarked in 1960 by Commonwealth Distillers. And it wasn’t until 1986 before the first Elijah Craig bourbon was released by Heaven Hill.
So who is the Father of Bourbon?
Authors and historians have thrown out a dozen or more possible suggestions. Names like Jacob Spears, Captain George Thorpe of the Virginia Company, Basil Hayden, and others that don’t get mentioned as often like Robert Samuels and Jacob Beam.
It is my belief that finding the person who first used the name bourbon, while nearly impossible, isn’t as impossible as determining the Father of Bourbon.
The reason is, the definition of bourbon wasn’t officially codified until the 20th century. Before that, bourbon was a name that was applied to a wide variety of whiskeys. So, what version of bourbon did this 18th or 19th century distiller either do successfully or start? If Elijah Craig was charring barrels, was he barrelling below 125 proof? Were his barrels new charred oak or were they used? Did he use at least 51% corn?
See the predicament? So I’m not going to attempt to add any more names to the speculation list.
- Bourbon Curious by Fred Minnick
- The Rise and Fall and Rebirth of American Whiskey by Fred Minnick
- A History of the American Spirit: Bourbon by Dane Huckelbridge