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Now making whiskey again, this historic distillery will open to visitors

Sneak peek: Lexington distillery opening for tours

The James E. Pepper Distillery on Manchester is opening for tours beginning July 12 but here’s a sneak peek behind the scenes.
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The James E. Pepper Distillery on Manchester is opening for tours beginning July 12 but here’s a sneak peek behind the scenes.

The James E. Pepper Distillery on Manchester Street began making whiskey again in December and now you can see the historic site back in action.

Beginning July 12, the distillery will be open to the public, with hourly tours.

For owner Amir Peay, it has been a decade-long project, beginning in 2008 when he revived the dormant James E. Pepper label to sell whiskey made by contract distillers.

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Museum features vintage James E. Pepper Distillery bottles, collectibles and ephemera at James E. Pepper Distillery on Manchester Street. Matt Goins

Peay began collecting items related to the Pepper name and now has hundreds of objects, from old whiskey bottles to letters and photographs, even pieces of the still.

A key piece of the past came back to the site earlier this year, when he was given the distillery's original flag, taken down when Schenley closed the Pepper distillery about 1958. John Resig, a software engineer and co-founder of The Chive, gave it to Peay after getting a private tour.

"It sat in somebody's basement for over 50 years until we were able to acquire it," Peay said. "We unfurled it ceremoniously in December when we filled the first barrel."

The flag now hangs on the wall just inside the visitors' entrance, which is located between Goodfella's Pizzeria and Ethereal Brewing, just behind the Middle Fork Kitchen Bar restaurant.

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A vintage flag from the distillery at James E. Pepper Distillery on Manchester Street. The flag flew over the distillery under Schenley when it was closed 60 years ago. Matt Goins

A fraction of his collection of Pepper memorabilia will be on display at the distillery when it reopens, and the tour will give a rundown of the fascinating history of one of Kentucky distilling's most significant names.

"The biggest problem I have with this brand, honestly, is too much amazing history," Peay said. "I can give an hour and a half lecture on it, but I need to distill it to 10 minutes ... I've tried to get what I think are snapshots of the most important parts of the brand's story."

Col. James E. Pepper was the grandson of Elijah Pepper and the son of Oscar Pepper. He inherited his family's distillery in Woodford County at the age of 15. Family friend Col. Edmund Hayes Taylor was appointed his guardian. Taylor and Pepper would be two of the most influential whiskey makers in Kentucky.

Pepper became both wealthy and well known in New York and Europe for his whiskey and his race horses. After marrying Ella Offutt Kean in 1890, Pepper established Meadowthorpe Stable and purchased Meadowthorpe Stud Farm on Leestown Pike.

The new distillery is inside a portion of the 1936 building that housed the last Pepper distillery. It was built by the Schenley spirits company on the site of Pepper's original 1879 distillery, which was destroyed by fire just as Prohibition was about to be lifted.

While the previous version was a large-scale industrial facility that filled the Pepper campus, the modern iteration is a craft distillery but not a small one, Peay said. The custom-made Vendome copper still and doubler, built along the lines of the James Pepper's original design, can produce about 33,000 cases a year. Eventually, the distillery could make up to four times that amount running around the clock.

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Jenna Dowell and Alex Keeling, both interns from UK's distilling program, look on as master distiller Aaron Schorsch checked sugar levels in the mash in the lab at James E. Pepper Distillery on Manchester Street. Matt Goins

But the scope is limited by access to the building, which is now part of the booming Distillery entertainment and dining district, just outside the heart of downtown Lexington. To really grow, Pepper will have to add another site.

Tours, which are $20 per person, will start in the visitors room and wind through the production area, where visitors can see and smell the four fermenting vats, sample "white dog" off the still and then sample bourbon and rye in the distillery's tasting room. You can book tours online at Jamesepepper.com.

"This is a very unique tour, both from a brand education point of view and a production point of view," Peay said.

Peay didn't plan to go into distilling, he said, but when a spot on the historic campus was available he couldn't pass it up. And now that he has a working distillery, he has no desire to sell the brand now that he's rebuilt it. He's even made plans to expand into Europe and China, although the new bourbon tariffs threaten to put that on hold.

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Master distiller Aaron Schorsch, left, and proprietor Amir Peay at James E. Pepper Distillery on Manchester Street. Peay petitioned and got the distillery's original DSP number from the federal government. Matt Goins

Master distiller Aaron Schorsch, who has close to 20 years of experience from Seagram's, Jim Beam and Sam Adams, is making the mash from corn as well as other grains sourced from the Gilkison Farms in Winchester.

"We're a little pressed for space, had to fit into the existing shell," Schorsch said. So everything from the grain mill to to the bottling line to the condensers for the still are positioned to maximize space.

Where possible, elements of the historic distillery were left, such as the pipes that once went to the multistory column still. A mill stone from the 1800s was found under part of a concrete floor during the excavation and rebuilding of the distillery campus and it is now displayed in the barrel room.

Peay has added staff: Marjorie Amon will run the visitors center, Tylar Culver will manage operations and Cody Giles, a recent University of Kentucky graduate of the chemical engineering and distilling program, is working with Schorsch as a distiller, as well as two UK interns who are studying distilling.

While it will be a couple of years at least before the ambitious new Pepper distillery can release whiskey made on-site, Peay has been aging sourced rye in different barrels to create different "finishes" and plans to keep both his 1776 Rye and Bourbon, Old Pepper Rye and Henry Clay straight rye, as well as small batch releases on hand for visitors to sample and purchase.

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