Elijah Craig, a name you likely recognize from bourbon labels, is widely considered to be the father of bourbon. But not so fast, says Fred Minnick, the author of the new bookBourbon: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of An American Whiskey(Voyageur Press, $14). In the course of conducting research for his book, Minnick claims to have unraveled the true creator of the beloved corn-based American whiskey. “We’ve been sold a big, fat lie when it comes to Elijah Craig inventing bourbon,” says Minnick. Instead, he says, the real father of bourbon is a little-known farmer named Jacob Spears.
Most early American whiskeys were made with rye or other grains, says Minnick, not corn, a key ingredient for making bourbon. Though corn grew well in the New World, including Kentucky, Mother England mandated that corn was to be used for food and limited its distillation use for the American colonies.
Minnick traces whiskeys made with a mix of corn and rye to about 1813 to 1818. “This is the period corn distillation gains notoriety in the Northeast,” he says. Distillers of the period found that distilling rye and corn together created a product “of more spirit and of a purer quality than can be obtained from either grain alone,” wrote Harrison Hall, a renowned Northeast distiller, in 1813 in Hall’s Distiller. But Hall did not advise storing the corn-centric whiskey inside a charred cask—another critical step required for making bourbon. References to charred oak barrels for storing whiskey start to appear in the 1820s; the first mention of bourbon by name is in 1821, in the Western Citizen newspaperwith then Maysville, Ky., bourbon producer Stout and Adams advertising “bourbon whiskey by barrel or keg.”
Minnick posts that Jacob Spears was the first to put all of those key elements together—corn-based whiskey aged in charred oak barrels—in a distillery environment, making him “the true father of bourbon,” not Craig.
Minnick says most early American whiskeys were made with rye or other grains, not corn, a key ingredient for making bourbon, and that Jacob Spears, pictured, not Elijah Craig, was the first to put together all of the key elements of bourbon production.
So who was Spears? His family moved to Kentucky in the late 1780s. According to an 1897 account, Jacob Spears’ Bourbon County Distillery was known as the “famous Peacock Distillery,” and a newspaper article of the time claimed it as the “oldest distillery in Kentucky” and credited it with bourbon’s creation: “In this rude distillery was made the first bourbon whiskey ever distilled.”
“Even if Spears was not the first bourbon distiller, he was most certainly one of the Kentucky’s first and most important,” says Minnick.