James E. Pepper – fact or fiction?
Posted on August 18, 2013
by Brian Haara
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My last post, about “How Woodford Reserve got to keep the (old) name of its distillery,” followed the 1880-81 litigation between James Pepper and Labrot & Graham over the name of the “Labrot & Graham’s Old Oscar Pepper Distillery.” James Pepper was the grandson of Elijah Pepper, who in 1812 became the first distiller on Glen’s Creek where Woodford Reserve is now located, and he wanted to stop Labrot & Graham from using the “Pepper” name.
After James Pepper’s bankruptcy in 1877 and loss of the family distillery described in the court’s ruling, his financial fortunes seemed to have reversed. The current owners of the Pepper brand, Georgetown Trading Co., describe James Pepper as a “larger-than-life bourbon aristocrat[, who] raced thoroughbreds, traveled in a private rail car, and introduced the world to the ‘Old-Fashioned’ cocktail.” They add that he lived for extended periods of time at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel and “socialized with other American captains of industry, including John D. Rockefeller, Theodore Roosevelt, C.V. Vanderbilt, Charles A. Pillsbury, Fred Pabst, Charles Tiffany, and William Steinway.” I wonder if those captains of industry knew about the bankruptcy?
Bankruptcy is not mentioned in Georgetown Trading Co.’s historical review (http://www.jamesepepper.com/history.php), which simply characterizes the loss of the family distillery as involving a sale by James Pepper so he could move to Lexington to build “the largest bourbon distillery in the U.S.”
While the facts recounted in Pepper v. Labrot [& Graham], 8 F. 29 (C.C.D. Ky. 1881) seem to contradict this current-day spin on how the Pepper family lost its distillery, the case might also prove that James Pepper made some exaggerations too. The marketers at Georgetown Trading Co. posted this August 22, 1887 “‘top secret’ letter … from James E. Pepper himself,” which claims that “Old Pepper Whisky” is made in the same way and with the same formula used for more than 100 years by three generations of the Pepper family:
The facts recounted in Pepper v. Labrot [& Graham] seem to contradict this 100-year claim too. Indeed, the Court quoted one of James Pepper’s pre-bankruptcy (presumably sometime between 1874 and 1877) advertisements where he gave credit to James Crow, who we all know did not revolutionize bourbon distilling until the 1830’s (which was different from how Elijah Pepper would have made his bourbon). James Pepper’s advertisement does not mention his grandfather or any family bourbon enterprise dating back to the 1700’s:
Having put in the most thorough running order the old distillery premises of my father, the late Oscar Pepper, (now owned by me,) I offer to the first-class trade of this country a hand-made, sour-mash, pure copper whisky of perfect excellence. The celebrity attained by the whisky made by my father was ascribable to the excellent water used, (a very superior spring,) and the grain grown on the farm adjoining by himself, and to the process observed by James Crow, after his death by William F. Mitchell, his distillers. I am now running the distillery with the same distiller, the same water, the same formulas, and grain grown upon the same farm.
But my favorite part of the 1887 “top secret” letter is its conclusion, which sounds like a dig at Labrot & Graham, and which probably reflects Pepper’s dissatisfaction with the court’s 1882 ruling that Labrot & Graham could continue to use the name “Old Oscar Pepper Distillery”: “Our Mr. Jas. E. Pepper is the only one of his name who has been engaged in the Distilling business in Kentucky for over twenty years, and therefore any whisky offered to the trade as a genuine ‘Pepper’whisky is fraudulent unless distilled by us.”
This is part of what I love about bourbon – every brand has myths, legends and stories to tell, and they’ve been telling those stories for over 200 years.