By Richard Thomas
Several years ago, the Old Pepper brand was a fixture on round-ups of the best expressions of MGP’s ubiquitous 95% rye, 5% malted barley rye whiskey. It was near and dear to my heart for more than just that standing, however. When Amir Peay started Georgetown Trading Co. and acquired the rights to the Old Pepper and began building it up as a sourced whiskey brand, he also started down the path to reviving the James E. Pepper distillery.
The Pepper plant was a fixture of my childhood in Lexington, Kentucky. My father’s first horse farm was a couple miles down the road, past where Manchester Street became Viley Road. I have vivid memories of the looming bulk of the abandoned factory as I rode with my father, driving by on my way to visit my uncle at his job (coincidentally, that job was found in a cluster of old bourbon warehouses, further up Manchester Street). When I began exploring Kentucky’s abandoned bourbon heritage in my late teens, the Pepper plant was an obvious and early project. I’ve paid keen attention to the property ever since.
Peay brought the brand home by reopening a distillery on that property in 2017. The new James E. Pepper is a much smaller affair than the old distillery, since it occupies only the middle part of the former main building. Even so, five years ago is long enough for Old Pepper to have some aged, in-house whiskey on hand to fashion into that signature of small and mid-sized distillers across America: the bottled in bond.
Old Pepper Bottled in Bond draws on two distinct distillates, both made at the Pepper plant. The first uses the familiar 95% rye, 5% malted barley mash bill of their old MGP-sourced stock. The second is a 100% malted rye whiskey. Pepper says the old distillery made a 100% rye whiskey, which would be a curious thing given that the Kentucky style of making rye is “barely rye” (i.e. at or slightly above the legally mandated 51% rye mash content), but that is what they are attempting to replicate.
A pour of Old Pepper Bonded takes on that coppered, orange-amber look that so many ryes have, once it gets into the glass. The nose coming out of that glass shows the malted rye in the blend quite well, with a scent of molasses and rye spice, plus a current of mustiness. The spicy character of the whiskey becomes sharper on the palate. So, a sip of Old Pepper Bonded Rye has a bit of a kick to it initially, until it is met by a rising tide of caramel, which evens things out. The finish jinks back to where things started on the nose, with musty rye spice, but this fades fast.
At time of writing, the price wasn’t available, but hopefully I’ll be able to update the review with the MSRP soon.