In the 19th century, Lexington, Kentucky had several respectable distilleries. By 1910 there were four distilling companies based in the area. These were the Curley Company Distillers with distilleries DSP 3 and DSP 15 8th District, Kentucky in Camp Nelson, Jessamine, County, Old Elk Distillery DSP 12 7th District, in Lexington, Old Tarr Distillery DSP1 7th District, in Lexington and James E. Pepper & Co. DSP 5 7th District in Lexington and Pepper had a second distillery DSP 46 in nearby Yarnalton, Kentucky. Lexington also had three liquor merchants and rectifiers, Shannon & Co., W.J. Smith and R.S. Strader & Son. Prohibition closed these distilleries down and the James E. Pepper Distillery was the only once to survive those long, dry years until it was purchased by Schenley Distilleries and re-opened after repeal. Unfortunately, the Pepper distillery was closed in the 1960s as overproduction forced Shenley to shut down many of its Kentucky distilleries.

In the 1990s, when I started working for United Distillers, Lexington had only the memories of their distilling heritage. In the past thirty years this has changed. It was a slow start, but it is gaining momentum. Rosemary and I recently went to Lexington for an overnight stay to visit the local Bourbon scene and I will say, I was very glad we did. It has become a destination city for Bourbon drinkers. I will do future blogs describing the distilleries in more detail, but for now, I will describe our activities in Lexington.

We started the tour by visiting The Town Branch Distillery. This distillery was founded by the people who ran Alltech. Alltech is a company that was producing yeast products and it was only natural that they would expand, first into a brewery, and then into a distillery. They have a very good tour and gift shop. At the end of the tour, people get to try both beers and whiskeys made at the site.

Our next stop was the old James E. Pepper Distillery site. There, we were able to visit two distilleries. The first distillery we visited was the Barrel House Distillery. This distillery makes Rock Castle and Barrel House Select Bourbons. It is a very small artisan distillery, making about a barrel a day. It has a very interesting tour and a gift shop where you can purchase their products.

About fifty yards away from Barrel House Distillery is the James E. Pepper Distillery. The James E. Pepper brand was purchased by Amir Peay, who purchased the abandoned trademark in 2008 and started sourcing whiskey and bottling it under the James E. Pepper brand. In 2017, he started making whiskey at the old James E. Pepper Distillery. However, the old distillery site is much larger than the needs of this new company, so the distillery site is the home of several restaurants as well as the Barrel House and James E. Pepper distilleries. 

The new Pepper Distillery has a small column still and doubler and makes several barrels a day. The tour is excellent and includes a small history room with many artifacts and documents dealing with the history of James E. Pepper and his wife, Ella Offut Pepper, as well as the brand. It is a tour well worth taking and the gift shop allows you to purchase bottles of their products.

The next day, we started the day with a tour of Bluegrass Distillers. This distillery was established in 2012 in Lexington, but is expanding and moving to Midway, Kentucky next year. Now it is a small artisan distillery with two pot stills, making about a barrel a day. The expanded distillery will have a small column still and increased production. They make several expressions of Bourbon, including a “high rye” Bourbon and a Bourbon made with heirloom blue corn. They have an interesting tour and a gift shop where you can purchase bottles.

On our way home, we stopped at Justins’ House of Bourbon. This liquor store was founded in Lexington by Justin Thompson, one of the founders of The Bourbon Review, and Justin Sloan, a Publisher at The Bourbon Review. They are known for selling vintage bottles and excellent barrel picks of single barrel products. They have expanded into Louisville, but this is the original store. It has excellent selections of whiskeys and a very good tasting bar. They have a knowledgeable staff that can make excellent recommendations. It is well worth the stop and we did leave with some purchases.

Lexington is once again, a Bourbon city. Besides the places we visited, it should be noted that they have a very vibrant Lexington Bourbon Society and the Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild. They have several excellent Bourbon bars and it is a short drive away from the distilleries in Frankfort and Lawrenceburg as well as those in Woodford County. A visit to Lexington should be on every Bourbon drinker’s short list of things to do. 

Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller