JAMES E. PEPPER TOUR & TASTING

We recently had some downtime during an equestrian competition in the Bluegrass. While we didn’t have a huge block of time, we had time enough to check out a local Lexington distillery in the heart of the Distillery District.

The Man – The Distillery

Named after Colonel James E. Pepper, the distillery is located in downtown Lexington. Colonel James E. Pepper was born in 1850. As a third generation distiller (you may recall that there was a Pepper involved in the original site of the Woodford Reserve Distillery in nearby Versailles, Kentucky),  he produced Old Pepper” whiskey – “The Oldest and Best Brand of Whisky made in Kentucky”. Today, the distillery is adorned with patriotic advertisements citing its ties to being founded in 1780 during the American Revolution.

Pepper was also quite the horseman, operating one of the finest horse farms in all of Kentucky. While traveling the United States with his racing colts, he enjoyed spending a fair amount of time in New York, where he promoted his brand. It was at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel that Colonel Pepper spent significant blocks of time with the Rockefellers, Roosevelts, Vanderbilts and Tiffanys. While he enjoyed bourbon neat, he also introduced his socialites to the “Old Fashioned” cocktail, which was created by a barkeeper at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky. Along with the likes of Colonel E.H. Taylor and George Garvin Brown, he advocated for and was instrumental in the passing of the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897.

At one point, the James Pepper distillery was one of the largest distilleries in the United States. Today, the distillery is a shadow of its former glory days. In the late 1800s, Pepper went broke and was able to re-purchase the distillery only after his wife bought back a few of their racehorses from consignment to re-sell them again. In 1906, following a fall while in Manhattan, James passed away. The distillery was sold to investors and continued to produce spirts until Prohibition. Following Prohibition, industry conglomerate Schenley bought the site and produced bourbon until shuttering the plant in 1958. For more than fifty years, the site remained vacant and was an eyesore to the local community. The gift shop contains an impressive collection of “before and after” photos.

The plant today represents the rebuilt distillery following a devastating fire on April 28, 1934. Four brick warehouses burned, sending over 15,000 barrels of whiskey into the flames or running into nearby Town Branch creek. In total, seven buildings were destroyed, including a gauging room bottling room, supply house, and four warehouses. 

Fast Forward 50 Years

Today, the James E. Pepper brand is owned by Amir Peay. A quick internet search will show you the before-and-after photos of the defunct and resurrected distillery.  In 2010, Peay relaunched the Pepper name, currently sourced by Midwest Grain Products (MGP) in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. By 2014, investors had purchased the old Pepper Distillery and reached out to Peay to house his brand in the renovated distillery. By 2017, barrels were once again flowing from the James E. Pepper Distillery in the heart of the Distillery District. 

In addition to the distillery, the Distillery District houses Ethereal Brewing, Battles Axes, Goodfellas Pizzeria, Break Room Bar, and Crank & Boom Ice Cream (be sure to make a stop and check out their Bourbon Ball ice cream!). All of the businesses are housed in former buildings that comprised the historic distillery; for example, Break Room Bar is, indeed, housed in the original break room for distillery employees.

The Tour and Tasting

The tour begins in a small room surrounded by much of the advertising from the early years of the Pepper Distillery. We quickly head into a fermentation area housing four 1,000-gallon mash tubs. I noted large containers of fresh grains, locally sourced from a nearby Kentucky farm. We then step into the distilling room where the highlight is a 27-foot tall column still, manufactured by Vendome in Louisville, Kentucky.

While short, the highlight was a barrel adjacent to the still and barreling area where a whiskey thief provided a refreshing, fresh-from-the-barrel tasting. Yum! For a few more years, the bourbon on the shelves bearing the Pepper name will continue to be sourced from MGP; I’m looking forward to the day when they are able to support their own supply. The Pepper lineup includes their flagship 100 proof bourbon, 100 proof rye, barrel proof rye, sherry cask finish rye, and a limited edition 15-year rye. 

On the tour, we sampled several bourbons and ryes. James E. Pepper’s signature bourbon is bottled at 100 proof. While they are distilling product at their downtown Lexington, KY location, the bottles on the shelves at your local store still bear the “Distilled in Lawrenceburg, IN” (aka MGP) label. I’m savoring this tasting in a James E. Pepper Glencairn glass provided on the tour (always good to match the bourbon and the glassware!).

The mash bill is 57% corn, a hearty 39% rye, and 4% malted barley. This would definitely be considered a “high-rye” mash bill While no age statement is displayed, the label does indicate that the bourbon aged over 3 years and is unfiltered (another unique character of this bourbon). 

Eye:  Light amber

Nose:  There’s a trace of initial ethanol.  I’ll swirl it around and let it breathe.  Vanilla and brown sugar with baking spices. It’s light and mellow. I notice some long, thin legs dripping down the side of the glass. There’s also a hint of berry jam.

Palate:  Spice.  A lot of spice on the tip of my tongue, followed by some brown sugar sweetness, ending in a dry, oaky char.

Finish:  Medium, balanced, and overall nicely done. More spice, balanced with buttery corn sweetness and oak.

Overall:  This is a bourbon with a really great story in its original close-to-downtown location.  I’m looking forward to the day when we can sample some bottles of their own distillate. In the meantime, while many may snub their nose at MGP, this is a decently-done product.  

While this still feels a little “light” (and I’d love to see another year or two on this), for those savoring more spice that only a higher-rye bourbon can deliver, you won’t be disappointed with “Born with the Republic” James E. Pepper 1776.

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