Elijah Craig was born in Virginia around 1740.
He became a Baptist in 1764, personally converted by David Thomas. Two years later he decided to become a Baptist preacher.
Then in 1771, Craig was ordained and became the pastor of Blue Run Church.
By 1774, Elijah Craig along with John Waller had been appointed missionaries to evangelize the area north of the James River.
Although Virginia adopted the principle of freedom of religion in its Declaration of Rights in 1776, Baptists still faced persecution from some elements of the Anglican religious establishment during America’s early statehood period, particularly when they preached to mixed congregations of freemen and slaves, white and black.
Moreover, the Anglican Church (re-established as the Episcopal Church after the American Revolution) received subsidies. Thus Craig became politically active as the legislative liaison of the general convention and general association to Virginia’s legislature as well as the ratification convention of 1788.
As such, Elijah Craig worked with Patrick Henry and James Madison concerning protections to religious freedom in the federal and the state constitutions.
Ultimately, religious freedom became protected in the First Amendment, and Baptist membership grew as they restricted involvement of black members.
Travel to Kentucky area of Virginia
Seeking religious freedom and economic opportunity in 1781, Elijah Craig’s brother Lewis led an exodus of up to 600 people known as “The Travelling Church” (composed of most of his congregation from Spotsylvania County and others) to the area of Virginia known as Kentucky County. Elijah Craig did not go with this group but followed a few years later.
These emigrants included slaves owned by the Craig’s.
They walked the Great Wagon Road of the Blue Ridge Mountains through present-day Lynchburg, Roanoke and Fort Chiswell, gathering members, before joining the Wilderness Road.
They crossed the Appalachians through the Cumberland Gap, and then continued north, ultimately settling in central Kentucky and establishing a church at Gilbert’s Creek.
When Elijah finally met up with his brother in 1782, he purchased 1,000 acres in what was then Fayette County, Virginia.
Elijah planned and laid out a town originally called Lebanon, which was incorporated in 1784.
(In 1790, his town was renamed Georgetown in honor of George Washington.)
Elijah Craig preached at several churches with John Waller, and in 1786 became pastor of the Great Crossing Church which they had founded the previous year.
Elijah established the first classical school in 1787.
By 1785, dozens of small farmer-distillers west of the Alleghenies made corn-based whiskeys which they called ‘bourbon’, to distinguish them from the rye-based whiskeys commonly distilled in the East.
Bourbon whiskey is a type of American whiskey – a barrel-aged distilled spirit made primarily from corn. The name of the spirit derives from its historical association with an area known as Old Bourbon, around what is now Bourbon County, Kentucky (which, in turn, was named after the French House of a Bourbon royal family). Old Bourbon was created in 1785 and at the time consisted of a region within Virginia. (Later in 1792, these cross-Appalachian counties separated from Virginia to form the new state of Kentucky).
Then on June June 14, 1789, Elijah Craig founded his own distillery.
Craig built his distillery in what was then Fayette County. The location later became part of Woodford County in 1789, and later Scott County in 1792.
The origin of bourbon whiskey is not well documented. Instead, there are many conflicting legends and claims, some more credible than others. For example, the invention of bourbon is often attributed to this pioneering Baptist minister and distiller Elijah Craig.
Elijah is said to have been the first to age the distillation in charred oak casks, “a process that gives the bourbon its reddish color and unique taste”.
No actual historical evidence indicates that Elijah Craig’s whiskey was unique in its time, nor that he practiced charring of the aging barrels.
The first known publication potentially alluding to Elijah Craig as bourbon whiskey’s inventor was in 1874 (and includes only a brief entry in a densely packed list without actually mentioning Craig himself, or pointing to any evidence, and without any elaboration as to what distinguished the product as the first bourbon).
Elijah Craig went on to become a local business magnate.
He built Kentucky’s first fulling mill (for cloth manufacturing), its first paper mill, its first ropewalk (for manufacturing rope from hemp), and the first lumber and gristmill at Georgetown.
Elijah Craig also donated land for the founding of Georgetown College, the first Baptist college founded west of the Allegheny Mountains, and which continues today.
Elijah Craig continued to prosper, eventually owning more than 4,000 acres and operating a retail store in Frankfort. He died May 18, 1808 in Georgetown.
John Taylor wrote of him in A History of Ten Baptist Churches, “His preaching was of the most solemn style; his appearance as of a man who had just come from the dead; of a delicate habit, a thin visage, large eyes and mouth; the sweet melody of his voice, both in preaching and singing, bore all down before it.”
The Kentucky Gazette eulogized as follows, “He possessed a mind extremely active and, as his whole property was expended in attempts to carry his plans to execution, he consequently died poor. If virtue consists in being useful to our fellow citizens, perhaps there were few more virtuous men than Mr. Craig.”
Elijah Craig was buried next to his mother in his early church cemetery, after approximately forty years of ministry.
Whether or not Elijah Craig was actually the first to distill Bourbon Whiskey, or just credited for it due to his other interests, we may never know.
Today however, Elijah Craig is still widely known for the premium bourbon that continues to bear his name and is currently being produced by Heaven Hill distillery.
Elijah Craig whiskey is made in both 12 “Small Batch” and 18 year-old “Single Barrel” bottlings.
The 18 Year Old Single Barrel Bourbon is touted as “The oldest Single Barrel Bourbon in the world at 18 years . . .” made in oak barrels that are “hand selected by Parker and Craig Beam,” losing nearly 2/3 of the barrels contents in Angel’s share.
The barrels are thereafter sold to the Scotch whisky industry, and for use by microbrewers in making cask-conditioned beers, such as Goose Island Brewery “Bourbon County” Imperial stout.
In the San Francisco World Spirits Competition of 2010, the 18 year-old Elijah Craig Single Barrel Bourbon was awarded Best Bourbon and a Double Gold Medal rating.
In previous years, it had received a Double Gold Medal rating in 2008, a Gold Medal rating in 2004, and four silver ratings in other years (2003, 2005, 2006, and 2007).
Even though Bourbon Whiskey has been produced since the 18th century, it can be made anywhere in the United States. It is still strongly associated with the American South in general, and Kentucky in particular.
Now WE know em