James E. Pepper distillery is a very old distillery that closed in 1958 but has been resurrected by an entrepreneur, Amir Peay, who has no relationship to the Pepper family, which includes many bourbon notables from the bourbon past. James E. Pepper, the former proprietor for whom the distillery is named, is credited with popularizing the Old Fashioned cocktail by introducing the drink to bartenders at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. In any event, Peay relaunched the brand in 2008 sourcing his whiskey from MGP, but distilling resumed on site in 2017.
So, I picked up this bottle with some trepidation. MGP (Midwest Grain Products of Indiana) bourbon, with a three year old age statement so it could still qualify as straight bourbon. MGP whiskies can be truly great, like Widow Jane, but if pulled to young they can be very harsh, like Pinhook. However, at just under $40 and 100 proof, I thought I would take a gamble and see what we have.
Color is a nice amber; darker than I would have expected. There may be some three year old bourbon in there but it is not all three year old. On the swirl it leaves more of a film than legs at first but then thick legs start to develop as it oxidizes. This whiskey definitely needs to breathe.
On the nose are some nice rye and baking spice notes, along with a slight cherry note. Nose is good but not great. On the palate, floral notes, slight anise, herbal tea, bitters, cinnamon red hots candies, with the bitters and cinnamon lingering on the finish, which is pretty lengthy. Medium mouthfeel, just slightly thicker than say Baker’s, which is my benchmark for medium mouthfeel and finish.
Unfortunately, it does have that slight medicinal note from the young whiskey added. It falls short of Widow Jane 12 year old because of that, but is way better than Pinhook that is loaded with that medicinal taste by comparison to this bourbon. Clearly, 1776 has some older, really good MGP bourbon in the mix, but the addition of the three year old bourbon to stretch the batch, so to speak, does lower the quality of the finished product. I would pay a little more for this if it was a little older.
But, given the price point of under $40 and its healthy 100 proof, it’s worth buying a bottle if you like MGP bourbon, and I do. For me, though, it was worth it to buy the bottle not only because of the flavor but also to support an entrepreneur bringing a historic distillery back on line to distilling in the Lexington area. I can’t wait to see what this bourbon is like when the stuff they are distilling now has aged for a few years in eastern Kentucky. If they get the mashbill right, and General Stave sells them good barrels, the James E. Pepper distillery’s future bourbon holds a lot of promise. But I would urge Mr. Peay not to pull the barrels too soon, and to keep the 100 proof level.