The Return of a Bourbon Legend: James E. Pepper is Back!By Tim Knittel
After succumbing to the bourbon down-turn of the 1950s and ’60s and a fickle marketplace, the James. E. Pepper Distillery—a legend in its day, and at one point the largest distillery in the world—has re-opened in its original location. This marks the first time that a historic bourbon brand has returned to its original address.
It has been a long journey for the brand, which dates itself to the American Revolution. Like many bourbons throughout the last two centuries, James E. Pepper rose and fell many times, but was ultimately lost. Like a good bourbon, its return—thanks to the persistence of one man—took many years.
Introducing James E. Pepper
The Pepper family dates its American distilling experience to 1780, right in the heart of the Revolutionary War. James’s grandfather was Elijah Pepper, who founded a distillery in Versailles which is now home to Woodford Reserve. James’s father, Oscar Pepper, inherited the distillery and rebranded it “Old Oscar Pepper”. On May 18, 1850, James was born at the family house on the distillery’s property.
James E. Pepper / Photo Credit: James E. Pepper
At the tender of age of 15, after the death of his father, James inherited a portion of the distillery. Because he was a minor, Col. E. H. Taylor, Jr.—a bourbon legend in his own right—became James’ guardian and oversaw much of the distillery operations.
James initially struggled with the business and declared bankruptcy in 1877. But just two years later, James partnered with George Starkweather, who had recently purchased the shuttered Henry Clay Distillery in nearby Lexington. Honoring his grandfather’s bourbon heritage, James used his family’s original recipes and dubbed his whiskey “Old 1776” in honor of the American Revolution.
By the 1890s, the Pepper name was known among the wealthy and elite throughout the United States. Furthermore, his decisions influenced the way we drink bourbon even to this day.
The Pepper Distillery in 1894 / Photo Credit: James E. Pepper
Frustrated with Kentucky laws requiring distilleries to sell exclusively by the barrel, he took a stand. In 1890 he successfully introduced state legislation allowing his distillery to bottle its own products. Next, he added a strip stamp complete with his signature over the bottles’ corks. These stamps had to be broken to open the bottle, ensuring quality. Consequently, this idea was adopted by the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 and codified into U.S. law. Pepper further assisted the passage of the Trademark Act in 1905, and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.
Pepper died December 24, 1906 in New York from complications, shortly after an accident in which he slipped on ice. The distillery survived his passing, weathered Prohibition through “medicinal prescriptions” and lasted until 1958, when it finally ceased production.
ENTER AMIR PEAY
Fifty years later in 2008, the founder of the Georgetown Trading Co.—a producer of specialty whiskeys and alcoholic beverages based in Washington, D.C.—Amir Peay acquired the rights to the nearly forgotten brand.
Amir Peay / Photo Credit: James E. Pepper
Peay— an avid history buff—traces his own family whiskey legacy to the early days of the Republic. His fifth great-grandfather, Captain John Cassin, fought in the American Revolution alongside George Washington. After the war, Cassin was involved in the whiskey barrel trade.
Peay contracted with several distilleries to recreate the original Pepper bourbon recipe and reintroduce the brand to the world. Currently, James E. Pepper 1776 is produced by MGP International in Indiana.
But Peay had always had his sights on an even bigger goal: returning the brand to its home.
The Return of a Legend
“Getting the building back was something I thought about all along,” Peay says. “That was my first goal and intention.”
The Pepper still room today / Photo Credit: James E. Pepper
As a result of urban infill development, the area that was once home to the massive James E. Pepper distillery complex had evolved into a major Lexington nightlife hotspot, complete with multiple bars, a farm-to-table restaurant and a pizzeria. It was even dubbed the “Distillery District” after its original use.
Partnering with property owners and local developers, Peay leased a section of an original building and got to work renovating, rebuilding and reopening. Beyond just using the original recipe and then the original building, Peay worked tirelessly to revive as much of the authentic history of the James E. Pepper brand as possible.
Peay petitioned for, and received the original Pepper distillation permit number, DSP-KY-5 . Significantly, this marks the first time a distillery has reopened under its original number at its original location.
He contracted with local farmers to grow the corn, rye and barley just as Pepper had done in his day. And, where nearly every distillery in Kentucky has moved to reverse-osmosis water, Peay had a 200 foot long well dug to a limestone aquifer to draw from the same source that Pepper had used.
The new still even came from Vendome in Louisville, Ky., the same company that manufactured the last still that was used at the site in 1934.
Distilling resumed at the distillery in late December 2017. At a barrel-filling ceremony with the mayor and other Lexington luminaries, Peay beamed with pride, “I’m happy it came to fruition.”
Visitors Welcome (soon)
Peay describes himself as a “steward of the brand” and said he’ll use the distillery to “tell the story of the Pepper brand”. The redesign of the distillery was done with visitors in mind, allowing access to the entire process in a logical flow.
The Pepper Distillery today / Photo Credit: James E. Pepper
The distillery will also house a small museum which holds historic memorabilia stretching back to the American Revolution—items which Peay has been collecting over the last decade. The collection includes letters written by James E. Pepper himself and Pepper whiskey bottles from before, during and after Prohibition.
In a nod to Pepper’s legacy in the horse racing industry, the distillery is expected to open to visitors by Lexington’s spring racing season, which takes place at the nearby Keeneland Racecourse.