In bourbon history, there is fact, fiction, and legend, often spun together to tell a good story or two. Lore of recipes handed down through generations or historic bourbon names or locales. Few names in bourbon legend elicit such mixed views and stories as the name Elijah Crag.
The Man and the Myth
Born in 1736 in Virginia, Craig was a Baptist minister and is considered by many as the founder of bourbon whiskey. To help add some color to the story, I recruited my oldest daughter, Lauren, to add some of the legends as well as serve as photographer for this special story.
Seeking religious freedom, Elijah set out in 1782, along with his brother Lewis and 600 followers, to settle an area in western Virginia – today Fayette and Scott counties in Kentucky. Craig purchased 1,000 acres of land and renamed the local town of Lebanon to Georgetown in honor of George Washington. By 1789, Craig had founded a distillery. Some have credited him with being the first to age the corn-based whiskey in newly charred oak casks. Legend has it that a barn caught fire and only charred the insides of the barrels (really?). Craig, being frugal, continued to use them for his whiskey and was amazed at the results. Few records exist of the facts surrounding Craig’s distillery and this legend itself surfaced in 1874 with scant documentation.
The facts remain, though, that bourbon quickly caught on in the region. By 1785 when nearby Bourbon County was established, there were hundreds of small distilleries dotting the rolling Bluegrass making corn-based whiskies to distinguish their product from traditional rye-based whiskies found in the Eastern United States. But the legend doesn’t stop there.
Nearby Georgetown College (alma mater to my daughter), located in Georgetown, Kentucky, has its own Elijah Craig legends. Founded in 1789, Georgetown College was tied closely to Craig’s Baptist roots. Giddings Hall – a Greek-revival structure bearing 6 columns on its portico – was built in 1839. Shortly thereafter (and for decades longer), rumors swirled that filled bourbon barrels had been placed in the columns or filled bottles were placed under the columns the building. Ground penetrating radar finally put those rumors to rest.
A Brand 200 Years in the Making
Today, the story and lore of Elijah Craig is a blend of fact, fiction, and good storytelling. To pay homage to this bourbon legend, Elijah Craig Small Batch bourbon was introduced in 1986 by the Heaven Hill Distillery. For twenty years, this brand carried a 12-year age statement. It was reasonably priced and easy to obtain. In fact, I rarely took notice of the statement (which in today’s marketplace seems very uncharacteristic).
Too much of a good thing came upon the brand and Heaven Hill wanted to continue to build upon its success. Unfortunately, in early 2016 – facing a shortage of 12-year-old stocks – the age statement was removed. Press releases indicated that the brand would remain a blend of 8 and 12-year-old bourbon to extend their stocks without lowering proof.
Names like “small batch” also carry their own set of legends and lore. Batches may be as few as 5-10 or as many as hundreds and still carry a “small batch” name. Along with the age statement change in 2016, Heaven Hill increased their batching for Elijah Craig from 100 barrels to 200 barrels. While I understand the movement, like so many brands that have removed age statements, I feel like I lost an old friend.
Elijah Craig Small Batch is made from a mash bill of 78% corn, 10% rye, and 12% malted barley. It is bottled and 94 proof and while it no longer carries the 12-year age statement, Heaven Hill acknowledges that it is a blend of 8-12-year-old barrels. This was purchased for $32 at a regional grocer.
Eye: Medium amber.
Nose: A very lovely, traditional bourbon nose, with sweet caramel, vanilla, and oak. Nothing flashy here – solid and workman-like.
Palate: Oak and vanilla are on the forefront, with a slight nuttiness. The nice balance makes this an easy sipper.
Finish: Medium-long with oaky dryness with a spicy cinnamon finish. There is a little bit of heat, but this is still a solid pour.
Overall: Elijah Craig is a solid every-day pour. The higher proof lends itself to offering some mild complexity, while holding up to a cocktail or on ice. It carries a little less sweetness than its Evan Williams cousins, and continues to receive numerous accolades, even without an age statement. If you spy any dusty bottles with a small age statement on the back of the bottle, be sure to snag that unicorn.