The James E. Pepper brand has been revived in the 21st century. It is a very historic brand full of rich heritage, so it is no surprise that it has been revived after being abandoned for years. The new owners of the brand started by sourcing whiskey from Indiana, but have now built a distillery in Lexington, Kentucky to make their whiskey. This whiskey is still a few years away from being put into the bottle, but it is fitting they are making it in Lexington.
Elijah Pepper, James E. Pepper’s grandfather, started making whiskey in Versailles, Kentucky in the first decade of the 19th century. He later bought a farm along Grassy Creek and built a distillery. His son Oscar Pepper inherited the distillery and built a larger distillery near where his father’s distillery was located on the farm. In the 1830s, he hired James C. Crow as his distiller and his whiskey became well known. Old Oscar Pepper and Old Crow brands were very popular with great reputations for quality. Oscar Pepper died in 1867 and that is when his son, James, came onto the scene. The problem was that James was still a minor.
James E. Pepper had to go to court in order to inherit the distillery. After taking his case to court, he won the right to inherit the distillery, sort of. He was still considered too young to own a distillery so the court appointed E. H. Taylor, Jr. as his guardian who managed the distillery until James came of age to take over. Taylor helped secure the money for the distillery to expand and the business thrived until the late 1870s when overproduction in the whiskey industry combined by a financial crisis involved with the uncertain results of the Presidential election of 1876 caused E. H. Taylor, Jr. to go bankrupt. Unfortunately, because of the money he secured to expand the distillery for Pepper, that distillery became entangled in his debts and ended up on the auction block to settle his debts. The distillery was sold to Leopold Labrot and James Graham and James Pepper was out of business.
James E. Pepper was of age by then and decided to get back into the business. He and partner, George A. Starkweather, raised $25,000.00 and built a distillery in Lexington. In 1880 the James. E. Pepper brand was trademarked. The brand became very popular but much of the popularity came from the fact that Pepper believed in marketing. Like his mentor, E. H. Taylor, Jr. , he took advantage of all of the marketing tools available at the time.
Pepper used the old family mashbill and methods to make his whiskey. He came up with the slogans “Born with the Republic” and “Old 1776” in print advertisements, stretching the truth by about three decades, but that was not uncommon at the time. When bottling became financially feasible, he worked to change Kentucky law to allow distillers to bottle their own whiskey. He also created a strip stamp seal that had his signature on it to place over the cork stopper in the bottle. He then took out advertisements telling people that if they came across someone selling a bottle of James E. Pepper whiskey that was missing this stamp or if the stamp was torn or damaged, not to purchase it because it “might not be real Pepper whiskey”.
Pepper liked sports, and horse racing in particular. He owned a stable of horses and had several horses that ran in either the Kentucky Derby or the Oaks. In 1892, his horse “Miss Dixie” (named for his sister) won the Oaks. Pepper would also sponsor other sporting events. In 1910, the brand was a sponsor of the Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries prize fight and newspaper articles about the fight often have shown images of the fight with the “James E. Pepper – Born with the Republic” banner in the background.
Pepper died in 1906 and the distillery and brand was sold to some investors from Chicago. He had no children of his own. The distillery operated until Prohibition shut it down. The brand was sold as medicinal spirits during Prohibition by Schenley. By the end of prohibition, Schenley purchased the brand and the distillery. As Schenley grew in size, James. E. Pepper became simply one of dozens of brands made and sold by Schenley. They advertised using the “Born with the Republic” theme, but the brand sales began to slip and it became less important to the company than their flagship brands like I.W. Harper and J. W. Dant. Schenley over produced during the first part of the 1950s and was only saved from bankruptcy when the bonding period was extended to 20 years in 1958. They began to close distilleries down in the 1960s, transferring whiskey barrels to the Geo. T. Stagg Distillery in Frankfort. The Pepper distillery ceased to operate in the early 1960s and was closed down by the end of the decade. The brand disappeared from the market by the end of the 1970s.
For a brief period in the early 1990s, James E. Pepper Bourbon was revived by United Distillers, who had purchased Schenley in 1987. The brand was to be an export-only brand to the emerging Bourbon markets in Poland and Eastern Europe in 1994. It quickly died again as a brand as United Distillers sold most of their American whiskey brands to other distilleries. In 2008, Amir Peay acquired the abandoned trademark and started to bottle the brand once again, using sourced whiskey from Indiana.
The James E. Pepper brand has a long and interesting heritage. The brand has been revived and seems to be doing well in the 21st century.
Photos courtesy of Michael Veach and Rosemary Miller