While he has family roots in Kentucky, Amir Peay spent most of his life out West and in Washington, DC. But ten years ago, his passion for history and whiskey drew him to Lexington to reopen the James E. Pepper Distillery, which had been abandoned since the 1950s. To restore the brand to its former glory, he re-dug the limestone well to tap the same water source as the founder did in the 1890s and rebuilt the old still. He shares why he’s writing a new chapter in an old story.
Why reopen an old distillery?
I’m a history and whiskey nerd, and that led me to discover the whiskey brand started by Col. James E. Pepper. The whiskey had been produced from the American Revolution through the 1950s, and then both the brand and distillery were abandoned. There are two distilleries in Kentucky built by the Pepper family—what is today known as Woodford Reserve and the one in Lexington. I learned that the old Pepper distillery was abandoned, and decided to bring it back. We re-dug the limestone well and were able to study old drawings from 1934 to rebuild our still system.
What makes your whiskeys special?
Our best-selling whiskey is our 100-proof James E. Pepper “1776” Straight Rye Whiskey. It is made with more than 90 percent rye in the mash bill and is basically unfiltered, resulting in a complex whiskey that’s great neat. Another cool aspect is our DSP (Distilled Spirits Plant) number. We were able to revive the old license, DSP-KY-5. The federal government never reissues DSP numbers, so a new distillery built in Kentucky today will be in the 20,000s. Our license being “No. 5” means it was the fifth issued in the state.
What will visitors who come to the distillery find?
We have a museum that tells Pepper’s story. Our still system is a-one-of-a-kind work of art that always gets a great reaction. The layout really gives visitors an up-close look at how we make whiskey. And you get to drink some whiskey too.
Your thoughts on Lexington’s culinary scene?
Lexington has one of the best food and beverage scenes anywhere, and I can say that with confidence because I travel a lot. I just had groups here from New York and San Francisco, and they didn’t want for anything.