Kentucky’s James E. Pepper Distillery is now an entertainment center


LEXINGTON, KY — While best known, perhaps, for basketball and horses, Kentucky’s second-largest city also has a rich bourbon history. And one of Lexington’s new entertainment destinations was once one of the most famous and productive bluegrass distilleries in the entire state.

The 25-acre Distillery District, as it is known today, is located just over a mile outside of downtown Lexington on the former and current site of the James E. Pepper, about a three-hour drive from Columbus. The distillery had been abandoned for 50 years before the brand was resurrected, albeit in a more modest form.

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The current iteration of James E. Pepper occupies only part of the footprint of the Old Distillery, the largest in the country after it was built in 1879. Occupying the balance of the Old Distillery and its ancillary buildings are a number of other businesses that make the Distillery District a place where a visitor can easily pack an entire day of food, libations, entertainment and more. The renovation of the district began in 2008, but the new Pepper distillery only started production at the end of 2017.

More than 50 years after its closure, the James E. Pepper Distillery in Lexington's Distillery District is open to visitors.

A bourbon lesson, more

Visitors taking the distillery tour will hear the fascinating story of James E. Pepper, who went bust twice in the bourbon business, once before building his grand Lexington distillery and once after. The second time around, he was bailed out by his equally fascinating wife, Ella, who made her fortune breeding and racing thoroughbred horses.

A flamboyant promoter and showman, James Pepper was also responsible for pushing forward the reforms that helped improve and secure the quality of whiskey at retail throughout the industry. He’s also credited with introducing the Old Fashioned cocktail to the world – not a bad way to remember.

Pepper died in an accident in 1906, and the original distillery burned down in 1933. The distillery was rebuilt the following year, but ceased production in 1967.

The site and brand lay abandoned for half a century, to be reclaimed by entrepreneur Amir Peay, a former bartender who clung to Pepper whiskey history, then acquired first the brand, then the old distillery itself.

Tours also include a tasting of the distillery’s products, including Old Pepper Rye and Bourbon.

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Ice cream lovers should stop by Distillery District's Crank & Boom, an artisanal ice cream parlor.

Distillery District also offers restaurants

Town Branch Creek, which after years of neglect has also been cleaned up, runs directly behind the Distillery District and provides a delightful backdrop for alfresco dining or drinking at several District destinations, including Goodfellas Pizzeria, which occupies also part of the old distillery.

If your taste is more ice cream than bourbon – or if, like me, you’re deeply invested in both – you absolutely can’t miss Crank & Boom Ice Cream Lounge, which was born from the very good ice cream produced at a Thai restaurant in Lexington. .

Craft beer and cider lovers will also find something to delight their palates. Ethereal Brewing, which is also located in part of the old distillery building, offers traditional craft beers such as IPAs and witbiers, as well as interesting experimental foams, and has a lovely patio along the creek.

Fusion Brewing and Wise Bird Cider Co. are each located in an old rickhouse where bourbon was once stored for aging. Also in the old rickhouse is the Rickhouse Pub, gourmet cafe Brevede Coffee Co., and Relic, a funky retailer offering vintage, rustic, and reclaimed googaws.

Entertainment venue The Burl is next to the old Pepper Distillery.

Another tavern, The Break Room, is located, of course, in a building once used as the distillery’s break room, also now with creekside seating.

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Nearby entertainment venue

Opposite the Old Frankfort Pike Distillery is The Burl, an indoor/outdoor entertainment venue in and around a former train depot built in 1926. The Burl delivers a wide variety of acts – when I last visited, I saw a performance by the legendary LA rock and roots band East Los Lobos.

Next door is the Burl Arcade, with pinball machines and 1980s arcade games and a full-service bar.

Visitors to the Distillery District can also visit Barrel House Distilling, located in the former barrel of the Pepper Distillery.

But wait, the Distillery District has even more bourbon! (In Kentucky there is still more bourbon.)

Barrel House Distilling is located, as you might guess, in the former cellar of Pepper Distillery. The craft distiller shares the barrel with Elkhorn Tavern, which offers craft cocktails made with Barrel House liquors as well as good local tavern fare such as burgoo, a classic Kentucky-style stew made with beef, rabbit and elk.

What, you didn’t think a good Kentucky burgoo would leave out the elk, did you?

Steve Stephens is a freelance travel writer and photographer. Email him at [email protected]

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