Glassroom: The Q&A blog series with whisky distillers

James E. Pepper: Amir Peay

5 Jun, 2020

The different grains, the different types of smoke, the different mashbills. It is like the music of the 60s and how they changed the way we listen to music, the same is happening now in whiskey.

Can you give us a bit of background about yourself and how you started in the whiskey industry?

I spent a lot of years as a young man working in the restaurant and bar industry. Studied Philosophy in college at UC Santa Barbara and couldn’t find a job. So I started to publish a small newsletter called Wine & Dine covering the wine scene there. This began a wine collection that really developed my palate. I was also a freelance journalist for boxing for a while, and used to get the best seats at big prize-fights.

Later I developed an appreciation for whiskey, specifically Irish whiskey and Bourbon, and wanted to get into the whiskey business.  All of these experiences led me to create a brand of Irish whiskey called John L Sullivan.  I am also a huge history buff and later discovered an iconic and forgotten old bourbon brand called, James E. Pepper; and I acquired the rights to the brand in 2008.

Can you tell us about your distillery,
and what makes it unique?

We are in the actual historic Pepper distillery that was initially built in 1880 – DSP-KY-5. We have a museum at the distillery that goes over the history of the brand from 1780 til today, and tells the story of uncovering the brand through a decade of historic research, plus the rebuilding of the distillery after it was abandoned for over 50 years.

We have had a great response from our visitors, becoming the #1 rated attraction on Trip Advisor in Lexington. There is so much history that we reincorporated into the distillery, such as using the original limestone well and producing the original Pepper mash bill that was last produced in 1967 when the plant shut down. We also have a beautiful custom copper still built by Vendome which was inspired by the system they built at our distillery in 1934, the year Prohibition was repealed in Kentucky.

Are there any little ‘distilling’ secrets you can let us in on?

I’ve got a good one and for all the tradition we follow, this one is anti-tradition:  we use a sweet mash process in our production, as opposed to sour mash.

Sour mash was famously associated with the Peppers, but with the scope of our operation today and the tools at our disposal, from a quality point of view we choose to go with a sweet mash operation.

Whiskey has been phenomenally successful
in the United States and around the planet,
why do you think this is compared to other spirits?

Whiskey is the overnight success that took over 1000 years to take flight. And at the end of the day it is such a complex and flavorful spirit, with a very deep level of artistry and nuance across regions, that it simply stands apart from many other spirits objectively on its own.

In your years in the industry, what have been the biggest surprises you have faced?

That is a no brainer: Coronavirus! This is just devastating, especially to the people who own and work at restaurants & bars.  My heart really goes out to them. No one saw this coming.

What are the big trends that are affecting the whiskey industry at the moment?

A shift in consumption from the on-premise to drinking at home. Consumers may also be a bit less willing to experiment on new brands – they want tried & true quality at a reasonable price.

It is also an interesting time to see the next stages of the “craft” whiskey market, as you are starting to see some nice, well-aged products coming out from smaller, independent producers.

Are there any interesting stories from your time in the whiskey industry that you could share?

We recently had Norman Reedus from “The Walking Dead” film an episode of his show, ‘Ride with Norman Reedus at the distillery. That was cool. 

Another very cool thing was that after we opened the distillery for tours, the great-great niece of Ella Offutt Pepper, the widow of James E Pepper, visited us and donated a cache of photos, letters & mementos from James E. Pepper.  She even gave us his personal wallet, with his old logo emblazoned on the inside.

What developments in the whiskey industry most excite you?

I think it is the accumulation of experience & knowledge that has built up in producing whiskey. 

It is really an amazing time to produce whiskey as we have all the knowledge and wisdom of prior generations at our finger tips, coupled with the greatest level of understanding from a technical and informational stand point.  Combined those 2 things are very empowering and exciting.

What do you see as being the future of whiskey in the short term?

Get through the coronavirus…

Why do you use the Glencairn Glass in your business and what makes it so special?

We use the Glencairn Glasses because, in my opinion, it is the best glass in the business.

It is refined and elegant, yet sturdy.  It is not overly finessed, and can be the glass for the executive as well as the working-class guy or gal. We give each visitor a branded glass on our distillery tours.

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