Pepper, James E.

1850 – 1906

Master Distiller and Turfman.

Colonel James Edward Pepper, Master Distiller, was a bigger-than-life, flamboyant promoter, who was very proud of his distilling heritage – the third generation to produce Old Pepper whiskey.  He claimed the oldest distillery – founded in 1780 – in the United States, the largest distillery in the world and the “best” whiskey in the United States.

He was the original prototype of the “Kentucky Colonel”[1] and lived life to the fullest, traveled in a private railcar and visited all the fashionable resorts in the United States and Europe.  He bred and raced thoroughbreds on both sides of the Atlantic.  He dreamed of building a stone castle on his farm outside of Lexington to rival the castles of Europe.

He was born on May 18, 1850, at the family’s distillery on Glassy Spring Branch of Glenn’s Creek, Woodford County, Kentucky.  His father and grandfather were Oscar[2] and Elijah[3] Pepper, respectively.  He was educated in Frankfort at the Sayre Institute.

He was tutored by his father in whiskey distilling and by the age of fifteen was placed in charge of the Old Crow Distillery.  His plans for college were disrupted when his father died in 1865.  He inherited a portion of his father’s distilleries on Glenn’s Creek.  At the time, he was a minor and Colonel Edmund H. Taylor[4] was appointed his guardian.  In 1867, the distillery was leased to Gaines, Berry & Company (established by Colonel Taylor).  This firm introduced Old Crow Whiskey.  In 1870, he was listed as the manager of the distillery.

In 1872, Colonel Pepper acquired his siblings interests in the distillery.  The property contained 33 acres on Glenn’s Creek and was known as the “Old Crow Distillery and Mill”.  In 1874, he entered into a partnership with Taylor and refurbished the distillery.  Taylor had advanced $25,000 for the improvements.  His branding on the barrels listed “Old Oscar Pepper Distillery – Hand-made Sour Mash – James E. Pepper, Proprietor.”

During the 1870s, Colonel Pepper often traveled to New York to brokering the Old (Oscar)Pepper and Old Crow brands.  In New York, he was a colorful figure who liked notoriety, which he used to promote his whiskey.  One of his tricks was to place empty bottles on the tables of saloons so that patrons would then order more.

In 1877, Pepper became overextended financially and was forced to sell the distillery to Colonel Taylor.  Shortly after, in 1878, Colonel Taylor sold the plant to Labrot & Graham.[i]

In 1879, he returned to Kentucky, settling in Lexington and established the Jas. E. Pepper & Company at the old Henry Clay Distillery.  In 1895, he also acquired the Silver Springs Distillery.  He operated both plants until his death.

From 1881 to 1891, Colonel Pepper owned half interest, with Colonel William S. Barnes in the Melbourne Racing Stable and Stud Farm.  The stable owned the noted thoroughbreds Blue Wing, Lioness, Gallifet, The Bourbon, Pure Rye and Once Again.  Their stable had two Kentucky Derby contenders (in 1886 with Blue Wing (second place) and in 1888 with Alexandria (forth place) and in 1886 won the Kentucky Oaks with Pure Rye).  Lioness was sold to Captain Samuel S. Brown, of Pittsburgh, for a record $10,000.

In 1884, Pepper sold half interest in his distillery to Colonel William S. Barnes.  In 1891 their partnerships in the distillery and stables were dissolved - with Colonel Barnes keeping the stables and Colonel Pepper the distillery. I

In 1890, Pepper married Mrs. Ella Offutt Kean of Shelby County, Kentucky.  She was born on May 18, 1850.  The local papers stated “Mrs. Pepper has long been considered one of the most beautiful women in Kentucky – Mrs. Pepper is tall, slender and graceful; her figure is girlish in its outline and she carries herself with dignity.”[ii]

The bridal couple left on their two-month honeymoon to Europe in late July.  While in London, Colonel Pepper became famous for thrashing a rude clerk.  While staying at the Hotel Metropole, the Peppers returned from the theater and requested their room key.  The clerk ignored the request.  After the fourth try, Colonel Pepper raised his voice and the clerk finally gave him the room key.  As Colonel Pepper turned to walk away, the clerk made a rude comment about Americans.  Colonel Pepper then reached behind the counter and picked up the clerk by his collar.  He requested and received an apology.

By the time, he returned to Lexington in October 1890, the hotel story had taken on mythical portions – with a six-foot porter and guns – that received favorable coverage across the United States.  Colonel Pepper had upheld the honor of Americans.[iii]

In 1891, Colonel Pepper established the Meadowthrope Stable – which owned stakes winner Queen’s Messenger, LaJoya, Black Venus, Prince Pepper, Roxanna and Kilmannock.  His stable won stakes races in both the United States and England.  In 1891, he also purchased Meadowthrope Stud Farm on Leestown Pike, Lexington, Kentucky, for $60,000.  This was a record price of $275 per acre; the highest ever paid for bluegrass farmland.  The farm had two hundred thirty eight acres.  The farm was less than a half mile from his distillery.  He established a breeding operation, with the stud Kantaka, and a string of high quality broodmares.  His barns were some of the first to have electric light and telephone connections.

Colonel Pepper planned to build a stone castle on his farm that would be the “wonder of the bluegrass.”  He established a quarry at the distillery and stockpiled limestone blocks for his castle.  This quarry would later become the Central Rock Company.  However, he was beginning to have financial problems and renovated the existing farmhouse instead.  His remodeling cost $40,000 (almost the purchase price of the farm).  He converted an old farmhouse into a thirty-room mansion, with hot and cold running water, gas heating and electrical lighting (all novelties at the time).  He never was able to build his dream castle.[iv]

Colonel Pepper and his wife were well known for their Southern hospitality – hosting the cream of society at Meadowthrope during the race meets and horse sales.  He would entertain lavishly at his farm – always serving burgoo (traditional Kentucky stew).  The Peppers were truly “bourbon” aristocrats.

Meadowthrope, 1898   UK 2002AV #052

In February 1892, the distillery purchased a private railcar, named the Old Pepper, for Colonel Pepper’s use.  In May 1893, he imported a “London Trap” from England - a coach drawn by six horses that carried sixteen passengers on four rows of seats.  This coach was the talk of the town.  That summer, Colonel Pepper shipped the coach to Chicago and used it to ferry friends to the Columbia Exposition and World’s Fair.  That fall, he shipped the coach to Saratoga for the races.[v]

Colonel Pepper won the Kentucky Oaks in May 1892 with Miss Dixie.  The winning prize was $3,850.  The horse was named after his sister, Dixie Pepper.  He also named another horse Miss Belle, after his other sister, Belle Pepper.  He had two horses that ran fifth in the Kentucky Derby (in 1893 with Mirage ridden by Issac Murphy and in 1896 with The Dragon).

In December 1895, Colonel Pepper was selected to prepare the chapter on the distilling industry for the centennial of the Jay Treaty (that prevented war in 1795 with England).  This was at the height of his financial problems, but his reputation remained intact.  He was invited to spend Christmas in New York and to attend a banquet at Delmonico’s for the centennial.  Among the other guests were John Jacob Astor (real estate), John D. Rockefeller (Standard Oil), Theodore Roosevelt (Governor, later President), C. V. Vanderbilt (New York Central Railroad), Charles A. Pillsbury (baking), Fred Pabst (brewing), Charles L. Tiffany (jewelry), William Steinway (pianos), Francis G. duPont (gunpowder), Levi P. Morton (banking), Pierre Lorillard (tobacco) Thomas L. Eckert (Western Union) and Phillip D. Armour (meat packing).[vi]

In the fall of 1899, Colonel Pepper shipped King’s Courier to England for the racing season.  King’s Courier was owned by Mrs. Pepper and considered by many to be one of the finest thoroughbreds that ever lived.  The Peppers spent the spring and summer of 1900 in England attending the races.  King’s Courier won the Doncaster Cup, defeating the entry owned by King Edward VII.[vii]   That fall, the Peppers traveled to Paris for the World’s Fair and stayed at the Hotel Continental.

While in the American Bar at the hotel, Colonel Pepper requested, “have you Pepper’s whiskey here.”  The young lady behind the bar said “yes, monsieur” and handed him a glass and the pepper jar – thinking that this must be some American drink.[viii]  While in Paris, he also happen by a store selling Old Taylor Whiskey, a competing brand distilled by his friend and former guardian, an comments that the world was a small place.  He returned to Lexington for Christmas.

In 1900, Mrs. Pepper purchased the Ephraim D. Sayre farm on Leestown Pike (adjacent to Meadowthrope).  The farm was purchased for $17,000 - one hundred thirty four acres at $127.50 per acre.[ix]

In May 1900, he was featured in the magazine Successful Americans.  The article described him thus:  “Col. James E. Pepper, from an old Kentucky family, horseman of International fame.”  The article stated that the “Pepper distillery, known to the entire world as the makers of one of the best brands of whiskey known.”[x]

Pepper, along with his former guardian, E. H. Taylor, was one of the backers of “straight” whiskey – backing the Bonded In Bond Act of 1897 and Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.  He was also instrumental in trademark protection, filing numerous suits to enforce his marks.  In 1905, he secured the passage of the Trademark Act to protect brand names and marks.

He died on December 24, 1906, at the Waldorf-Astoria, New York.  He and his wife had gone to New York for Christmas.  He died of heart and lung problems, following a broken leg received several days earlier.

Colonel Pepper left a sizeable estate to his wife.  His widow auctioned Meadowthrope Farm and his horses in February 1907 for a total of $81,050.  The farm was sold for $55,580 to Dr. Samuel H. Halley[5] for $250 per acre.  His sixty-three thoroughbreds sold for $25,470 or $404 per head.  Lady Pepper was sold to Joseph E. Madden for $4,000.  Mrs. Pepper kept Prince Pepper.  The Imperial Stud of Japan had once offered any sum of money for Prince Pepper.[xi]  His wife died on April 2, 1939.  Both are buried in the Lexington Cemetery.[xii]


[1] The title was honorary, being bestowed by the Governor of Kentucky.

[2] His father, Oscar Pepper, inherited the distillery from his father.  In 1833, he hired Dr. James Christopher Crow as Master Distiller.  Dr. Crow was a physician trained in Edinbrough, Scotland.  Dr. Crow brought a scientific approach to distilling – using the saccharimeter thermometer to study fermentation.  He was the first to perfect the sour mash process – where a portion of the “sour” stillage from the prior day was mashed in the next day.  This created consistency between batches.

In 1838, Oscar Pepper established the Old Oscar Pepper brand.  Henry Clay, noted Kentucky Senator, would annually ship a barrel of Pepper’s whiskey to Washington “to lubricate the wheels of government.”  Other famous customers included Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun, Ulysses S. Grant, William Henry Harrison and Daniel Webster.

Dr. Crow died 1856, at the age of sixty-eight.  In 1860, Pepper built the Old Crow Distillery, a few miles further down Glenn’s Creek.  Old Crow whiskey was made at this plant.  He was a prominent Democrat and a “general” in the state militia.  He was also an extensive landowner and cattle breeder.  He left a sizable estate at his death in 1865.  An estate ad in 1865 noted “a few barrels of CROW WHISKEY, the last chance for a good drink.”

[3] His grandfather, Elijah Pepper, was born around 1764 in Culpepper County, Virginia.  In 1780, he is said to have built his first distillery in Culpepper.  He relocated to Kentucky in 1797 and established another distillery in Versailles (with his bother-in-law, John O’Bannon).  This plant was located behind Woodford County Courthouse (using a spring for water).

In 1812, Elijah Pepper built a new distillery on Glenn’s Creek, between Versailles and Frankfort.  This site had a more reliable water supply.  Pepper was a large landowner, with several farms around Versailles.  Pepper died in 1831.  Today, his distillery is operated by Brown Forman Corporation as the Woodford Reserve Distillery.   The distillery is on the National Register of Historic Places.

[4] Colonel Edmund H. Taylor, Jr. (1830 – 1922) was orphaned at an early age and raised by his uncles – Zachary Taylor (12th US President) in New Orleans and later by E. H. Taylor, Sr. in Frankfort.  He became the cashier of the Commercial Bank in Versailles, Kentucky, in the 1860s.  He was also a member of the private bank of Taylor, Turner & Company in Lexington during the Civil War.  He was a speculator in cotton and whiskey during the Civil War.

During the war, he learned the art of distilling from Oscar Pepper.  He organized the O. F. C. and Carlisle Distilleries in Frankfort (later Ancient Age) and the E. H. Taylor Distillery on Glenn Creek (later Jim Beam).  He made a number of innovations to the distilling industry.  He is best known today for the Old Taylor brand.

[5] The farm was the site of the first airport in Lexington (known as Halley Field).


[i] Veach, Michael R., James E. Pepper Timeline.

[ii] Lexington Leader, August 26, 1891, page 2, column 2.

[iii] Lexington Leader, October 6, 1890, page 1, column 4.

[iv] Lexington Morning Transcript, April 26, 1892, page 8, column 2, Lexington Leader, April 26, 1892, page 1, column 8 and Lexington Herald – Leader, September 22, 1974, section E, page 14.

[v] Lexington Leader, May 3, 1893, page 1, column 3.

[vi] Lexington Leader, January 15, 1898, page 1, column 1 –3.

[vii] Lexington Leader, January 5, 1900, page 2, column 6 and April 5, 1939, section 2, page 3, column 2.

[viii] Lexington Leader, October 29, 1900, page 7, column 4.

[ix] Lexington Herald, November 24, 1899, page 4, column 3.

[x] Lexington Leader, May 18, 1900, page 7, column 3.

[xi] Lexington Herald, February 10, 1907, page 5, column 1.

[xii] Lexington Herald, December 25, 1906, page 1, column 1; December 26, 1906, page 1, column 2; December 27, 1906, page 1, column 2; December 28, 1906, page 1, column 4; and Lexington Leader, December 27, 1906, page 2, column 3.


William M. Ambrose, Bottled In Bond under U. S. Government Supervision, Limestone Press, Lexington, 2008.