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.
As a craft distillery that’s open and honest about sourcing aged whiskey stocks whilst building up their distilling operation, the James E. Pepper Distilling Co. have found a very warm welcome for their products amongst whiskey enthusiasts globally. Having now oficially launched their rye whiskies in the UK, fans of whiskies using the classic MGP 95% rye recipe have also began rushing to get their hands not only on the 92 proof standard release but also the James E. Pepper barrel proof rye. This whiskey comes from the same stocks as the standard release but is presented to fans as is: straight from the barrel with little filtration. Combined with the fact that barrel proof MGP rye offerings are very thin on the ground from other brands it didn’t take long for news of a new entrant to the market to spread like wildfire and for sales to hit the roof.
Today I’ll be taking a look at the barrel proof rye offering from James E. Pepper bottled under their popular 1776 label. This is offering is non-age stated and non-chill filtered.
Name: James E. Pepper 1776 Barrel Proof Rye
Age: Non-age stated
Proof: 114.6 Proof (57.3% ABV)
Type: Non-chill filtered straight rye whiskey
Mashbill: 95% rye, 5% malted barley
Producer: James E. Pepper Distilling Co.
Nose: The nose opens complex and punchy with charred toasted oak and nutty caramel notes. These are then followed by strong herbaceous dill, peppery rye, faint dark fruit, and a slight acetone burn.
Palate: The palate is oily and thick with buttery-nutty caramel, sweet marshmallow, dry oak, and a hint of herbaceous dill, followed by a crashing wave of white pepper rye spice, a touch of red fruits, dark chocolate, and faintly bitter charred oak.
Finish: The finish opens with the burn from the palate fading towards dry peppery oak, faint dill, and an aftertaste of warm toasted oak and dry cheeks.
This is definitely a big step up from the 92 proof rye! At barrel proof the flavours are more complex and concentrated with more oak-driven flavours throughout. Despite retaining the signature James E. Pepper rye notes of vegetal dill and bitter charred oak, there’s also a hefty dose of toasted oak on the nose, and dry tannic oak throughout. What surprised me most about this whiskey has to be the nutty caramel and marshmallow notes I got on the palate. These only form the start of the palate but were none-the-less unexpected in an MGP-sourced rye whiskey.
Having now tried both the 92 proof and barrel proof rye expressions it’s clear how these guys are trying to differentiate their MGP-sourced whiskey from other brands. Through careful blending they pursue a flavour profile that I have yet to find elsewhere. It will be very interesting to see if these flavour notes carry through to their own distillate when the time comes but for now UK-based fans of MGP rye whiskey have been presented with something wholly unique and barrel proof.
Try or Buy?
A barrel proof MGP rye whiskey that will give you an experience unlike any other? If that’s not a good enough reason to at least try this then you are missing out. Luckily the price is just shy of £50 so for me this is a clear buy.