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Old Time Kentucky: Father of Bourbon Elijah Craig imagined he could serve God and mammon both

By Berry Craig
NKyTribune columnist

In early Kentucky, many a vote was swayed, outright bought or rewarded with whiskey.

Campaign expenses included barrels of booze, “the spirit of democracy” when the Bluegrass State was young.

Popularity awaited any Kentuckian who could “drink whiskey, and talk loud, with the fullest confidence,” wrote Frankfort editor Amos Kendall, later an important member of President Andrew Jackson’s “Kitchen Cabinet.” Yet today, many of Kentucky’s rural counties are “dry,” meaning that it is illegal to sell alcohol within their confines.

Elijah Craig (Wikimedia Photo)

Elijah Craig (Wikimedia Photo)

Politicians, especially in non-urban Kentucky, generally avoid tippling in public, fearing they might offend some conservative Protestant churchgoers, Baptists among them, who declaim the demon rum.

But a metal plaque planted by the Bourbon Institute near the famous Royal Spring in Georgetown, the Scott County seat, says the Rev. Elijah Craig, Baptist, “first distilled bourbon whiskey on this site in 1789.” Craig founded Georgetown, wrote J.H. Spencer in volume 1 of his book, A History of Kentucky Baptists: From 1769 to 1885.

The metal tablet explains that the Virginia native siphoned the spring’s “fine limestone water…to develop the first sour mash process in the production of bourbon.”

The parson -— no relation to this scribe — was dubbed “the Father of Bourbon.” However, Craig “or any of a number of other distillers may have produced the first bourbon,” the Kentucky Encyclopedia cautions. “It is doubtful that the name of the first distiller of bourbon whiskey will ever be known.”

Craig was a controversial man of the cloth, but not just because he squeezed corn, according to the Baptist history book. Born in the Old Dominion about 1743, Craig became a Baptist minister before he migrated to Kentucky in 1786, an unfortunate move “both for the cause of Christ and himself,” Spencer wrote.


Craig contemplated abandoning the pulpit “but vainly imagined he could serve God and mammon both,” the author added. “He became irritable and indulged in a spirit of fault finding.”

Craig kept preaching “till near the time of his departure,” but was charged with “no immorality except his petulant fault finding,” Spencer wrote. It was confidently believed that Craig “was a child of God, and a sincere man; but he allowed Satan to take advantage of the weakness of the flesh and do him much harm.”

Today, many Bluegrass State Baptists foreswear bourbon as the devil’s brew. Hence, “the distilling industry has taken delight in pointing to a Baptist preacher as the inventor of its prime product,” the encyclopedia says.

Even so, many Baptists evidently partook in Craig’s day. Apparently, the sin was hitting the bottle too hard.

In any event, Craig’s newfangled whiskey was said to be so smooth that the Kentucky Legislature considered banning it. One lawmaker worried that the liquor was so mellow it might even lead women to imbibe.

But the whiskey Craig was credited with creating stayed legal and ultimately became known as bourbon, apparently named for Bourbon County, where early distillers were plentiful, the encyclopedia suggests.

The “Birthplace of Bourbon” sign also says the Father of Bourbon, who died in 1808, started Craig’s Classical School, “and operated the first fulling [wool processing] mill and paper mill west of the Allegheny Mountains,” also in Georgetown.


Berry Craig of Mayfield is a professor emeritus of history from West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and the author of five books on Kentucky history, including True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo and Kentucky Confederates: Secession, Civil War, and the Jackson Purchase. Reach him at bcraig8960@gmail.com

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