The James E. Pepper Distillery is in Lexington, Ky. This image is an aerial photograph taken by Schenley Distilleries when they owned the distillery in the 1930s. It shows the distillery building, warehouse and associated buildings that they owned, but this is not the distillery as it was owned by James E. Pepper.
James E. Pepper was the son of Oscar Pepper and he inherited his father’s distillery in Woodford County, Ky. He was still a minor at Oscar Pepper’s death and it took a lawsuit to clear the way for him to inherit the distillery. The result was that E.H. Taylor, Jr. was named his guardian and oversaw the running of the distillery until James was of age to take over ownership. Pepper wanted to make improvements to the distillery and borrowed money to make these improvements. The result was that he became entangled in Taylor’s financial troubles and the Oscar Pepper distillery was sold in a bankruptcy auction to Labrot and Graham in the late 1870s.
Like Taylor, James E. Pepper quickly recovered enough to build a distillery on this site in Lexington. The structures were wooden and looked very barn-like. It consisted of a distillery, warehouse and bottling facility. Pepper was a great promoter of his brand and used the slogan “Born With The Republic”, telling people his family started distilling in 1776. This of course was a marketing ploy. His grandfather Elijah Pepper did not start distilling until the early 19th century, but it worked.
Pepper whiskey became well known and sold well. When bottling became feasible, Pepper was one of the distillers to get Kentucky law changed to allow distillers to bottle their own product. He then created a strip stamp to go over the cork that stated “If this seal is broken, don’t buy the bottle because it may not be real Pepper whiskey”. He also sponsored many sporting events where he would promote his whiskey to the crowd. He was a masterful marketing person of his day.
Pepper died in 1906. In 1908 the distillery was sold to James Wolf of Chicago who invested money in improving the distillery. The brick warehouse and larger distillery in this photograph was the results of this investment. Wolf ran the distillery until Prohibition when it was shut down. The Pepper whiskey owned by Wolf was sold by Schenley during Prohibition as medicinal whiskey.
When Prohibition ended, Schenley purchased the distillery. It, with Geo. T. Stagg Distillery in Frankfort, The Schenley Distillery near Pittsburg, Pennsylvania and the Finch Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana were the four distilleries that became the core of the Schenley business. Schenley would go on to make some improvements to the distillery in the following decades, but James E. Pepper Distillery was closed down in the 1960s. Schenley had overproduced in the 1950s and closed all of their distilleries except the largest, most efficient ones to save money. These smaller distilleries were eventually sold. Today the distillery site is being developed and includes a small distillery that will make the James E. Pepper of the future.
Image from the archives of Michael Veach