Elijah Craig was born in Orange County, Virginia, in 1738, over fifty years before Kentucky became a state.
Like most children his age at that time, he received a rudimentary education focused on practical and religious knowledge.
In 1764, he crossed paths with a Baptist preacher by the name of David Thomas. He had founded the Broad Run Church and became a mentor and inspiration for Craig’s interest in pursuing religion.
Craig’s pension for curiosity led him to seek more knowledge about religion and landed him in meetings led by Samuel Harriss, a prominent evangelist. It was there that Craig developed his passion for spreading the Gospel.
Inspired by Thomas and Harriss, Craig began a small ministry of his own in his family’s tobacco barn, preaching to all who would listen.
Two years into preaching, in 1766, Craig traveled to North Carolina. There, he met with Clergymen David Read. Craig successfully convinced Read to accompany him back to Orange County to baptize Craig and his entire congression, giving legitimacy and recognition to his efforts.
Craig helped found the Blue Run Church in 1769. He eventually became an ordained minister and a well-followed member of the Baptist movement in Virginia.
However, the seeds were planted for Craig’s eventual migration west when he became a target for the Anglican church.
At the time, the Anglican church was deeply intertwined with the state’s government, even receiving financial support as the states officially supported denomination. Craig, who refused to convert and continued preaching Baptist sermons, was jailed no less than two separate times for “preaching without a license.”
The second time, they tried to break Craig by giving him nothing but water and rye bread for the entire month of his imprisonment.
Craig, even in a weakened state, refused to be defeated and compromise on his beliefs.
He preached to those passing by the window of his cell, and his congregation would gather in the street to hear his sermons.
Ending Religious Persecution
His two older brothers, Lewis and Joseph Craig, were also Baptist ministers with smaller followings. They tried to convince Craig to head west with them and their congregations to pursue true religious freedom. However, Elijah decided to stay behind in Virginia and get involved in politics.
His goal was to help end religious prosecution in Virginia.
He acted as the legislative liaison of the general convention and general association for Virginia’s legislature. He worked with James Madison Patrick Henry to eventually pass a statute protecting religious freedom and disestablishing the Anglican Church’s tie to the Virginia government so all churches could have equal representation.
He also helped with the formation of the first amendment, which is pretty cool.
Craig eventually did settle in Kentucky a few years after his brothers made their pilgrimage. Craig sold his Orange County farmland and eventually became the pastor of the Baptist Church at Great Crossing in 1786, which is located in what would eventually become Scott County, Kentucky.
Moving to Kentucky
Craig, ever the entrepreneur, began speculating on land and purchasing investment plots. He began opening a number of businesses on many of those plots.
He is credited by historians as starting Kentucky’s first paper mill, a ferry across the Kentucky River, gristmills, and many other enterprises that continued to add to his quickly growing wealth. He even established an academy for boys, teaching linguistics and science in Lebanon.
However, his claim to fame came in 1789, when he started a distillery. And, it was that distillery for which he’s still known today.
He began supplying the surrounding areas with whiskey from his distillery. These bolts of whiskey would typically be transported by wagon or, more often, on rafts floated down the rivers.
There are very popular legends that Craig was the first person to use charred barrels to improve the qualities of his whiskey. Many even refer to him as “the father of bourbon” for this reason. So, let’s examine the two prevailing legends. One, much more exciting, and the other much more realistic.
Some believe that there was a barn fire at one of his warehouses that stored the barrels. The smoke and heat charred the barrels (or, at least the staves that would be made into the barrels). Craig, always looking at the monetary side of things, decided the barrels were still good enough to use as a container for the whiskey. After the barrels got to their destination, the whiskey had a new character and flavor that many loved, and people began asking him for the “charred barrel whiskey” again.
As delightful as that is, there seems to also be a few hiccups in that story.
Craig was an entrepreneur through and through, and sending his whiskey in burnt-up barrels would probably be a bad look. Also, a barn fire charring the inside of the barrels without structural damage to the outside would have been nothing short of miraculous. And, while we believe miracles do happen, this was likely not one of them.
The second, and much more plausible answer is that most barrels for transporting spirits were used. One of the popular ones being sugar barrels, which were charred to help protect the sugar.
So, Craig could have gotten a supply of sugar barrels, noticed the difference it made with the whiskey and began experimenting with that charring to help replicate the flavors. Or, he could have bought barrels with less savory flavors, like fish barrels, at a discount and played with charring them burn out the flavors.
However, no one knows for sure exactly what happened or even if it happened. But, within every legend lies a grain of truth. So, who knows?
Craig’s growing entrepreneurial empire didn’t go unnoticed by his congregation at Great Crossing. Soon, there were calls to replace him. Many didn’t appreciate his growing materialistic wealth, claiming he should be donating either that time or money back to the church.
Craig was eventually cast out of the church and Elder Joseph Redding took his place.
Not to be deterred, Craig (who had some experience with these things by this point) started the McConnell’s church near McConnel’s Run with 35 members. That church would eventually move and be renamed Stamping Ground Baptist Church (which is now Penn Memorial Baptist Church and still in operation as of the writing of this book).
He continued to grow his operations until he owned more than 4,000 acres of land and had enough slave labor to keep it cultivated.
He opened a retail store in Frankfort and continued growing new enterprises and preaching until his death in 1808.
Today, Elijah Craig is still chugging along. The brand is owned by Heaven Hill which was founded by a group of investors soon after the end of prohibition.
They purchased a number of historical brands and tried their best to keep them alive in the spirit of their respective heritages.