Recently, Rosemary and I travelled to Lexington, Kentucky to visit some distilleries. The one distillery that was top on my list to visit was James E. Pepper. I say this because during my days at United Distillers, I dealt with a lot of records from this distillery and I wanted to see what has become of it. I am pleased to say that a lot of the old distillery site is still standing and whiskey is being made there today. In fact, there are presently two distilleries on the site, the new James E. Pepper brand Distillery, as well as, the Barrel House Distillery. Today, I will talk about the Pepper Distillery.
I have already published a history of the Pepper brand on my blog, so I will not repeat that here, but there is still a plethora of history to learn at the site. I was fortunate enough to be given my tour by Amir Peay, the owner of the brand and distillery.
Amir is passionate about the brand, the whiskey, and its history. When he purchased the site, he found many old records that included the original three chamber pot doubler. He has also collected everything he could find about both Pepper the man, and the brand, and has dedicated a room at the distillery with many of these items.
He is quick to tell the story of James Pepper’s wife, Ella. When Pepper once again fell on hard times and was forced to declare bankruptcy, Ella went to the horse auction for his race horses and bid on the horses. The bidders knew she was trying to save Pepper’s stable of horses and refused to bid against her. She won back the horses at bargain prices and was able to manage them for enough profit to pay off James’ distillery debts and saved the distillery, as well. This is just one of the interesting stories found in this room.
We next moved into the distillery. It is not a huge distillery with a small column still and a pot still doubler that is shaped like one of the Pepper decanter bottles from the 1960s. The distillery was started in 2017, fifty years after the old distillery was shut down. Years of neglect still show in some parts of the site, but Amir has done an excellent job creating a new distillery at his portion of the site.
He had some fermenters with rye mash during my visit and the mash was very good with some interesting herbal notes and citrus. They distill at a fairly low proof and have a fairly low barrel entry proof. They do not have aging warehouses and rent space at Castle & Key for aging their whiskey.
We ended the tour in the visitor’s center and tasted some whiskey. Most of their current product is sourced whiskey, but I did taste a two year old malt whiskey that was made on site. It is very good. They did not try to make a peated malt and I like that. If I want a peated malt, I will purchase a Scotch whisky. I think American malt whiskey should stand on its own and be recognized as such. I walked away from the distillery shop with three bottles and I am happy with all three. The distillery shows a lot of promise for making good whiskey in the future. Here are the tasting notes for the three bottles I brought home.
Old Pepper Single Malt
Age: Two Years Old
- Mike: Very light nose – mostly malt and vanilla with a hint of oak and fruit.
- Matt: Very light with malt and vanilla.
- Mike: Malt with hints of citrus with lots of vanilla and oak. Tasted with a dried cranberry and the citrus comes forward – orange and lemon peel with a hint of baking spice. Tasted with a pecan and the spice comes out – cinnamon and nutmeg.
- Matt: Mostly malt and grassiness with a little oak. The dried cranberry brought out citrus notes of oranges. The pecan brought out lots of oak and caramel.
- Mike: Medium long with oak and a little pepper spice. The dried cranberry made the finish shorter and sweeter with oak and baking spices. The pecan made it a very long finish with sweet oak and lingering spice.
- Matt: Light finish with only a little oak. The dried cranberry added some pepper notes. The pecan made it long with lots of oak and a hint of malted milk balls.
Old Pepper Rye
Age: No Age Statement.
- Mike: Rye grass, vanilla, anise and other baking spices, citrus and oak.
- Matt: Rye grassiness with vanilla and nutmeg and a little oak.
- Mike: Rye grass, vanilla, citrus notes with baking spices – cardamom and nutmeg with some sweet oak wood. The dried cranberry enhanced the spices at the cost of the citrus. The pecan made it more caramel than vanilla and enhanced the cardamom spice.
- Matt: Rye grass, anise, cinnamon and oak. The dried cranberry added notes of oranges. The pecan brought out hints of brown sugar.
- Mike: Long with oak and spice with a little lingering citrus. The dried cranberry enhanced the lingering citrus. The pecan made the finish longer and drier with lots of oak and only a hint of spice.
- Matt: Medium long with tobacco leaf and cinnamon spice. The dried cranberry brought out more baking spice – anise, cinnamon and nutmeg. The pecan had some lingering notes of brown sugar.
Old Pepper Bourbon
Age: Ten Years Old
- Mike: Lots of vanilla and toasted marshmallows, a hint of something floral and oak.
- Matt: A French vanilla latte and birch wood bark being used to start a fire in the grill.
- Mike: Vanilla and lemon zest with a little cardamom spice and oak wood. The dried cranberry enhanced the spices and oak flavors. The pecan added more vanilla notes and oak.
- Matt: Vanilla with peach fruit and oak. The dried cranberry was red hot candy and vanilla sugar cookies. The pecan brought out notes of cocoa and buttered almonds.
- Mike: Long with spice and oak. The cranberry reduced the spice and enhanced the oak wood. The pecan made the finish very spicy with some lingering notes of vanilla.
- Matt: Strong oak with lots of fall baking spices and licorice. The dried cranberry made the finish shorter and mostly oak wood. The pecan added notes of nutmeg and hot pepper jelly.
The James E. Pepper Distillery has lived up to my expectations. Amir has created a very interesting tour and is producing some excellent whiskeys. The next time you are in Lexington, Kentucky, be sure to take a tour and pick up a few bottles as well.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller