With a rich family history of distilling stretching back as far as the American Revolution, the whiskey brands associated with the Pepper family have been called some of the oldest produced in the state of Kentucky. Starting in 1780 with Elijah Pepper, who originally built and operated the family’s distillery in Woodford County, Kentucky (now the site of Woodford Reserve), the Pepper family had links to the Old Crow Distillery, the creation of the sour-mash technique (credited to Dr. James C. Crow who was employed as the Master Distiller at the family distillery), Colonel E. H. Taylor, the creation of the Old Fashioned cocktail, the Bottled-in Bond Act of 1897, and the Old Pepper brand of whiskey. The last member of the Pepper family associated with this vibrant history was 3rd generation Master Distiller Colonel James E. Pepper who died in 1906, leaving behind the proud Pepper distilling legacy and the James E. Pepper Distillery in Lexington, KY. After his death his namesake distillery continued operations through Prohibition and became one of the largest whiskey brands in the US before shutting down in the late 1950’s after falling on hard times financially.
In modern times the brand and its history were rediscovered, acquired, and revived by entrepreneur Amir Peay, who through a campaign of historical research and collecting historical materials, aimed to re-launch the brand in a proper fashion. Through a process of sourcing aged stocks first and then starting the process of commencing distillation of their own stocks on the site of the original James E. Pepper distillery in Lexington, KY, the James E. Pepper Distillery reopened its doors in December of 2017 and filled its first barrel of bourbon in over 50 years. The distillery currently produces a range of bourbon and rye whiskies under its James E. Pepper 1776 and Old Henry Clay labels.
To date the James E. Pepper Distilling Co. have been working from the now-commonly seen craft producer formula of sourcing aged whiskey stocks whilst building up their distilling operation. Under this approach they have released 9 different whiskies under their two labels. In line with other honest producers, these guys have openly admitted to these whiskies being sourced from MGP in Indiana, and have even gone so far as to hire ex-MGP distillery production operator Aaron Schorsch as their Master Distiller. Today I’ll be taking a look at their entry-level rye whiskey which was recently launched in the UK market at a lower proof than the US release (92 as opposed to 100). I’ve been told by their UK importer that this proof adjustment was made to help with EU alcohol duty rates (this is why we can’t have nice things).
Name: James E. Pepper 1776 Rye
Age: Non-age stated
Proof: 92 Proof (46% ABV) – European Release
Type: Non-chill filtered straight rye whiskey
Mashbill: 95% rye, 5% malted barley
Producer: James E. Pepper Distilling Co.
Nose: The nose opens with smoky charred oak, a touch of herbaceous dill, earthy rye, nutty caramel, a touch of acetone, and dark chocolate
Palate: The palate opens thick and oily, with earthy rye fading to bitter dark chocolate, hints of dark fruit, burnt caramel, slightly sweet and almost floral dill, black pepper spice, charred oak, and thick vegetal notes.
Finish: The finish opens with a kick of nut-heavy rye spice that brings bitter oak, burnt caramel, and dark fruit along with it as it warms the throat, leaving an aftertaste that is dominated by strong vegetal and bitter charred oak notes.
This is a boisterous rye whiskey that’s rugged around the edges but has everything you’d want from a proper rye. What I like most about this is, despite being an MGP rye fan that thinks he knows what he’s going to get, this gives a twist on an MGP rye that is unlike anything I’ve had before. The dominant barrel char and bitter oak notes combine with the dill and caramel to make this darker and help to balance out the usual sweet and fruity MGP rye notes. The mouth feel is also incredibly viscous with plenty of oil to keep the flavours on the tongue long after you’ve swallowed your sip thanks to this being Non chill-filtered. This may just be another MGP rye whiskey to enter the market but for me there’s enough of a profile and mouthfeel difference here that I would recommend this to all MGP rye whiskey fans. I can see this doing quite well in a rye whiskey-based cocktail with those bold flavours adding a flavourful edge to the finished product.
Try or Buy?
If you’re an MGP rye whiskey fan that is looking for something mature yet off-profile to mix up what you’re getting from other MGP-sourced ryes, then this is the rye whiskey for you. If, however, the balance of flavours sounds like something you’d want to try first I would highly recommend you order a pour of this at your local well-stocked whiskey bar.