By Richard Thomas
Lexington’s old Pepper Distillery is a fixture of some of my earliest childhood memories. When I was in kindergarten, the family farm was just down the road from this historic, long forgotten bourbon factory that was shuttered in 1958. My Dad would frequently drive up Old Frankfort Pike and onto Manchester Street, going past the big, abandoned industrial building that was the Pepper Distillery on his way to visit my uncle who worked at Kings Foods, a local distributor *coincidentally located in some other old bourbon warehouses in the same area).
This was just the beginning of a lifelong interest in that building. As a teenager, I engaged in what is now called urban exploring (at the time it was just simply trespassing) in the Pepper Distillery, and what turned out to be the first of many such adventures in old, abandoned distilleries. Decades later, I discovered that the Barrel House Distillery had opened on the property, in what was then an act of both early entry into the micro-distilling scene and urban pioneering. My now ex-wife did what was probably the last serious photo study of the Pepper ruin in 2013, years before its serious redevelopment into what is now the wildly popular Pepper nightlife campus.
As work on the Pepper campus gathered momentum these last few years, I wondered if Georgetown Trading, owner of the James E. Pepper Whiskey brand, would join the ranks of bottlers (non-distiller producers or NDPs) building their own distilleries and bring the brand home. On Thursday, December 21, the company did just that when the new James Pepper Distillery went operational and filled its first barrel.
The James E. Pepper brand was revived some years prior by Amir Peay, founder of Georgetown Trading, in the form of an MGP-sourced bourbon and rye. “I became intrigued with the idea of relaunching this iconic brand and was able to acquire the rights to the brand, which had simply been abandoned.”
However, Peay was a genuine enthusiast with some family roots in Kentucky long before he chose to get into the whiskey business, and that is reflected in his deeper interest in the Pepper story and building. “[After acquiring the brand] I then embarked on a campaign of thorough historical research and collecting any and all historical materials from the brand, a process that has now been ongoing for a decade and has yielded a small museum’s worth of antique whiskey, letters, documents, and more, all of which will be incorporated into the museum.”
All this work in brand building and historical research has now culminated in an operational distillery. To mark the inaugural barrel-fill, a small event was held at the distillery with Mayor Jim Gray, other Lexington officials and representatives of the Pepper campus community. The recipe for the first batch of whiskey distilled was the same as used in last produced at the Pepper Distillery in 1958.
“This is truly an historic occasion and the culmination of a ten year effort to restore both this iconic brand and the distillery to their proper places in the annals of Kentucky whiskey,” commented Amir Peay, owner of the James Pepper Distilling Co. “The best part is that we are just getting started and are excited to distill unique, high quality whiskies and to share them with the world when the time is right. We are also very fortunate to be located in the city of Lexington, in the vibrant Distillery District, and look forward to welcoming visitors to our distillery for tours in the Spring of 2018.”
The new Pepper distillery is a much smaller affair than the original, which closed in 1958. The current incarnation of ‘Distillery No. 5’ (DSP-KY-5—the fifth distillery license ever issued in the state of Kentucky) shares space with a pizzeria, craft brewery and fine dining restaurant in just one building of the old facility.
The distillery features a unique copper still system from Vendome Copper in Louisville, and its design was inspired by the archive of historic mechanical drawings from the old distillery. Vendome also made the still for the old distillery in 1934, following the repeal of Prohibition.
The new James Pepper Distillery is now up and running, but work on the facility isn’t finished, as they have yet to add those two fixtures of every modern distillery: a visitors center and a bar. The last unfinished spaces in the building await renovation for these purposes.