July 18, 2009

Early Distilling In Kentucky

Several sources of bourbon-related information name Elijah Craig as Kentucky's first bourbon distiller. Other sources give that title to Evan Williams. Wrong. Undoubtedly, both Craig and Williams had a beneficial impact on bourbon distilling in the 1780's and later. However, bourbon was distilled in what is now Kentucky years before either Craig or Williams began to make whiskey.

It's important to understand that in colonial America, distilling spirits - whiskey, rye, brandy, rum - was simply part of everyday life. Having distilling equipment was as common as having a grist mill or a loom, and distillation was an efficient and necessary means to make good use of grain surpluses grown in the colonies - what wasn't used for food was either distilled or traded. So, even before settlers moved into Kentucky, spirits were being distilled all along the eastern seaboard, Maryland and Pennsylvania being known for rye and the New England area for rum.

When colonists moved into Kentucky around 1774, most traveled via land through Virginia, and later via river from Pennsylvania. These settlers knew how to distill, and upon the creation of permanent frontier settlements, distilleries were built as a matter of course. Keep in mind that in these early days, the vast majority of stills were made for home consumption and not commercial use. And, since corn was the primary crop grown in the Kentucky frontier (along with wheat), it became the surplus grain used to make whiskey, and eventually bourbon. Elijah Craig and Evan Williams didn't show up until years laters.

Whiskey distillers simply moved to Kentucky - they weren't born there. Settlers took their well established European distillation practices with them as they expanded westward, and into what is today Kentucky. They worked with what the land gave them, most notably corn, and made their spirits accordingly. Consequently, the initial distillation of bourbon whiskey was dependent on the idiosyncracies of Kentucky's climate and soil rather than a single man.

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