Community Review #1: James Pepper 1776 Bourbon
Our collective goals at BSoBR go beyond sharing a few drinks and having fun events. In an effort to promote bourbon and whiskey knowledge across our community, we’re starting a monthly community review. For the next month, we’ll ask everyone in our group to go out and try a selected bourbon, then come back to us and share your review. Not only will this help us develop our own habits of tasting, but hopefully we’ll get a chance to share something fun together.
If you’re new to tasting and reviews, let me say that there is no wrong way to taste. You put the drink in front of you, fix it however you prefer, and then think about what’s in the glass. What does it smell like? What does it taste like? Is it hot? Is it smooth? What is the mouthfeel? Does the taste linger? If so, how long? These are some questions you might ask, and there are a thousand other illuminations that you will want to discover for yourself.
One suggestion for tasting is consistency. If you’re comparing the profile of a high-proof bourbon drunk neat with a smooth, wheated bourbon made into a cocktail, the variation alone will become a high hurdle to overcome. Think of yourself as a gustatory scientist, creating a controlled environment and mapping the changes from experience to experience. Beyond that, drink your whiskey how you like it!
For the month of July, we have chosen to start this endeavor with the James Pepper 100 proof bourbon. I’m going to share a little bit about the history of the Pepper family name, and at the end I will provide my own review of this tasty dram. Our rationale in this selection is that many of you may not be familiar with the Pepper lineup, the juice is solid, and it comes in at a reasonable price point, so no one is breaking the bank having to keep up with impossible to find or overly expensive pours.
James Pepper was not the first Pepper to produce whiskey in America. It was James’ grandfather, Elijah Pepper, who first built a distillery in Woodford County in 1810. He would continue to thrive in this environment until he passed in 1831, and his son Oscar Pepper followed him in the family business. Oscar partnered with the renowned distiller James Crow, and together they produced some of the best whiskey of their era, and their efforts in aging and manufacturing whiskey during this time helped to define the product that we would eventually start calling bourbon.
When Oscar Pepper passed in 1865, ownership of the distillery was passed onto his youngest son, O’Bannon Pepper, and his eldest son and eponymous figure, from whose bottle I am drinking today, James Pepper, took over as manager of the distillery. James would eventually sue his family and win for control of the Old Oscar Pepper distillery and brand in 1872, but he did not hold onto his control for very long. James would partner with the famous Colonel EH Taylor, and after financial hardships leave the distillery in Taylor’s hands in 1877. Though his brand is famous today, Taylor also had many early missteps and lost the distillery to another famous whiskey producer, George T. Stagg, and then it was sold to Labrot & Graham in 1878. To help situate us today, Labrot & Graham is the organization that goes by the name Brown-Forman.
After this repeated transition of ownership, Labrot & Graham continued to produce whiskey under the “Old Oscar Pepper” brand to capitalize on the fame that Oscar and Crow’s partnership had built, and James Pepper got back on his feet as well. James produced his own line of whiskey under the Old Pepper name, and this caused a fair amount of division, ultimately leading to a lawsuit to settle who got to “own” the Pepper brand. James would ultimately lose this lawsuit and the rights to use the “Old Oscar Pepper” name entirely. He would continue to produce whiskey under his own name, and achieve great success with that brand for many years.
The James Pepper distillery was one of the few distilleries allowed to continue producing during Prohibition for medicinal purposes, and the brand continued to produce until 1958 when speculative production due to the Korean War caused a glut in the whiskey market. The James Pepper distillery could not weather this final storm and closed its doors. The brand would be revived in 2008 by Amir Peay, who now owns the brand and distillery, and he began to source and bottle whiskey from MGP under the James Pepper name. The distillery has since been renovated and they put the first distillate into barrel on December 21st, 2017, so maybe one day in the future we will get to enjoy that product as well.
Let’s get to this bourbon!
James Pepper 1776 Bourbon
Made with a high-rye mashbill (38%)
Bottled at 100 proof
Drunk neat in a BSoBR taster after resting for five minutes
Nose: The aromas a sweet and balanced. I get a little oak, that customary bourbon sweetness that makes me think of candy corn. I get a little bit of ethanol, but in this case it’s not off-putting.
Palate: There is a good bit of spiciness on this bourbon, a twinge of bitterness lingers behind the natural sweetness that reminds me of celery? For probably being on the younger side, there’s a little bit of ethanol, but it’s very well balanced with the tannic oak notes and spicy pepper notes.
Finish: I’m picking up just a lot of warmth on the finish. It’s not terribly long, but it’s very pleasant. I am getting a hint of cinnamon and more of those baking spices as well.
Overall: For something that I picked up at $35, this is a fantastic product! It goes to show that the designers of this product were able to revive a venerable old brand and properly deliver on that old name. The main thing that strikes me with this line is that the spiciness and balance with oak are perfectly in line. This is not the oldest or most fancy product, but it’s clear that the people making it know what they are doing. I’m excited to share this with everyone, and hope that you enjoy it too! Drinking this blindly I would rate it 7.5. Factoring in the cost, I would give this a 9/10, and I would have a bottle of this on hand whenever I could.