James E. Pepper was a 19th century distiller that was a marketing pioneer. He used the slogan “Born with the Republic” and claimed that his grandfather Elijah Pepper started distilling in Versailles in 1776. The fact is his grandfather started distilling around 1812 so if the brand was “Born with the Republic” it was more likely the Republic of Mexico, not the United States. Still, it sold a lot of whiskey for Pepper. Actually more than he actually made and he was well known at the time for sourcing his whiskey from other distilleries. That makes this rye very true to the Pepper tradition. The fact that they are using the same slogans as Pepper is good thing in my opinion. Yes they are exaggerations, but that is the Pepper tradition and I like to see tradition kept alive.
The brand has been on the market for about a decade and the whiskey has been sourced from MGP in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. It is a fine whiskey that I am sure would make James proud. The owners of the brand have recently purchased the site of the James E. Pepper Distillery in Lexington, Kentucky and have plans to bring the brand home. It will be several years before we see this product but I have hopes that they will do the brand justice.
James E. Pepper Rye
Age: At least two years old
Nose: Fruit and vanilla. The fruits are berries and apricots. There is a little rye grassy aromas and a hint of spice.
Taste: Rye grass, vanilla and berry fruit with a hint of baking spices – allspice and cloves. With a dried cranberry the fruit and vanilla come forward and the spice diminishes. With a pecan the rye grass and spices come forward and the fruit and vanilla diminishes.
Finish: Long. It starts fruity but gets spicy with those baking spices and a hint of oak. With a cranberry the finish becomes brandy like with sweet fruit and a hint of oak. With a pecan the finish becomes very peppery at the expense of all other flavors.
Notes: This is a very good rye whiskey. It proves that age is not everything. It is flavorful and goes very well with a cigar. Today I am having a My Father’s The Judge. The whiskey enhances the chocolate notes in the smoke and the smoke adds a little caramel to the whiskey. Great combination.
Photos Courtesy of Michael Veach
October 5, 2017 at 8:55 pm
To clarify, James E. Pepper’s story was that his grandfather started distilling in 1780 (ie, Est. 1780), during the American Revolution, and for that reason he nicknamed the brand, Old ‘1776’.
I also very much enjoy the legacy of Pepper whiskey (obviously) and like many old brands there are some fanciful tales, but the unvarnished history of the brand is also very rich and compelling. For instance, as you wrote in an article last year and I found very interesting, “In 1890, James E. Pepper gets the Kentucky laws changed to allow distillers to bottle their own product. Before the changes in the law, distillers could only sell their whiskey by the barrel, and if their product was bottled it was because whoever purchased the barrel from the distillery did the bottling. He introduced the idea of a strip stamp with his signature on it to go across the cork, sealing the bottle…. The strip stamp became popular and the government used the idea when they passed the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897.” In my humble opinion these were pretty major developments in the history of Kentucky Bourbon and the creation of Bottled-in-Bond whiskey, which is one of the pillars of quality standards for American whiskey.
Also to clarify there is just one owner, myself — and I love your work and focus on the history of bourbon. It is a passion that I share as I have been collecting historic materials from the Pepper brand for close to a decade. They will be on display at the distillery in a small museum (and fyi the distillery is almost complete).
If you are ever near Lexington I would love to share these materials with you and get your insight. We have discovered some pretty cool things…
Feel free to drop me a line anytime and keep up the good work.
October 6, 2017 at 3:04 pm
Amir, I am quite familiar of the Pepper History. I did extensive research on the distillery while working for United Distillers and working to release the brand in Europe in the early 1990s. Yes, he claimed the 1780 date but he knew then that was not true. His grandfather did not start distilling until the early 19th century. However he was a marketing pioneer. He was willing to “stretch the truth” to sell more whiskey. I have no problem with that as many others were doing the same thing at that time. I think it was almost a game amongst the distillers to see how far they could stretch the truth. The fact is Pepper had some great whiskey in the bottle.
October 7, 2017 at 2:55 pm
I agree that Pepper had some great whiskey in the bottle! And also that he and other distillers then (and now) like to weave fanciful tales about their history and production. It is an integral part of our industry, and one that sometimes goes off the tracks, but personally I think one of the best pairings with a glass of fine whiskey is a good story to go along with it, whether it be one of history or production methods.
However, as somebody who has also been doing historical research on the Pepper brand continuously for almost a decade, I have found evidence that shows it was possible that Elijah Pepper was distilling in 1780. It would not have been at Woodford, as you are correct he began distilling at that site in 1812. But there is historical evidence that Elijah Pepper was born on December 8, 1760, in Fauquier, Virginia, then married Sarah O’Bannon on February 9, 1794, and then sometime in the 1790’s they moved to KY as their first child was born in 1797 in KY. There is also evidence that his first distillery built in KY was built behind the court house in Versailles before he went on to build at the site that is today Woodford.
So it is possible that Elijah Pepper was distilling in Virginia in 1780 when he was 20 years old and during the American Revolution. Furthermore, the father of Elijah Pepper’s wife (Sarah O’Bannon), Capt. William O’Bannon, the great grandfather of James E. Pepper, fought in the American Revolution and was Captain of the Virginia militia in 1776. And Elijah Pepper’s initial business partner in distilling in Kentucky was his brother in law, John O’Bannon, the son of Capt William O’Bannon, and he too fought in the American Revolution. I have even found reference to Elijah Pepper as “Capt. Elijah Pepper”, and while unverified there is the possibility that he too served in the war.
In light of above, I personally do not find the slogan ‘Born with the Republic’ to be untrue or out of step the factual legacy of the brand. I actually find it quite fitting when I imagine a young distiller in Elijah Pepper, possibly making whisky during the Revolution, and the role his future wife’s father was playing during that time in his community, and him then moving with his family and brother-in-law out of the ashes of the Revolution to Kentucky to begin a new enterprise in the whiskey business.
October 7, 2017 at 3:07 pm
Amir, I would love to see the records of Elijah Pepper distilling in Virginia and his distilling in Versailles. Could you send me the records to my email at Michael@Bourbonveach.com? I would appreciate it.
October 7, 2017 at 4:50 pm
Michael, to clarify I have not been able to find any records of Elijah Pepper distilling in Virginia. The point I was making was that it was possible that he was… Based on the evidence to date that he was a distiller, of capable age at the time in Virginia, and the story as told by James Pepper, I do not think one can make a definitive assertion that he was distilling in 1780 but at the same time I also do not think one can make a definitive assertion that he was not.
I will follow up with an email to you as I have been wanting to touch base for a while and get your input on all the research I have done and materials I have collected.