June 14: The Birth of Bourbon?

Elijah Craig“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” –The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

According to legend, it was on this day in 1789 that a Baptist preacher named Elijah Craig first produced a corn-based whiskey he named bourbon. The story goes that Craig’s whiskey distillery in Bourbon County, Kentucky fell victim to a fire. After the fire was put out, Craig discovered that the fire had charred many of the staves of the barrels in which he aged his whiskey. Rather than throw out the staves, Craig put the charred side of the staves on the inside of the barrel so no one would see. Unbeknownst to Craig, placing the whiskey in the charred barrels gave the liquor a sweeter and stronger taste. Craig would name his new take on whiskey after Bourbon County.

Pretty good story, eh? The only trouble is it’s probably a myth. Yes,  Craig did own a distillery, but that’s about where the truth ends. First off, Kentucky distillers had been calling their corn-based whiskeys “bourbon” for years to distinguish it from the traditional whiskeys made from rye. Second, the earliest known reference to using charred oak barrels to age bourbon was in 1826, nearly thirty years after the Craig distillery fire was supposed to happen. Finally, Craig’s name wasn’t tossed around as he inventor of bourbon until the 1870s, about sixty years after his death.

So, who actually invented bourbon? The world may never know. Whoever they were, I suggest you raise a nice, hearty Kentucky Cocktail in their honor.

The Kentucky Cocktail

  • 1 1/2 ounces Bourbon
  • 3/4 ounces pineapple juice

Shake the bourbon and the juice together in a cocktail shaker half filled with ice, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Tomorrow: We cross Niagara Falls.

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