First off, this isn’t the easiest bourbon in the world to figure out. We know that James E. Pepper was a real dude that used to make bourbon in the 1800s and we know the distillery he used is now the Woodford Reserve distillery. The brand made it to this side of prohibition, but was last sold in the U.S. in the early 1960s. Here’s the huge shocker (sarcasm): Diageo is responsible for releasing the bourbon outside of the U.S. in the 1990s. So with Diageo in the mix, it was very surprising to see that this brand is actually now owned by Georgetown Trading Co. based out of Washington D.C. Here is a tidbit from the “history” page of the James E. Pepper site.
[Georgetown Trading Co.] did extensive historical research and spent years collecting and sampling full bottles of original, perfectly preserved, pre, mid, & post Prohibition James E. Pepper whiskey. They even acquired a letter dated 1887 from James E. Pepper himself, detailing his production methods and the exact grain bills. Referencing these materials, they have begun distilling some new James E. Pepper whiskey, as well as hand-picking existing, mature barrels from select distilleries with similar grain bills and flavor profiles that match the “Old Style” of original James E. Pepper whiskey.
Now, what makes this so interesting is a thread on straightbourbon.com that was posted in 2009 by a guy wanting to know where he could find a “partner” willing to bring the James E. Pepper brand back to the U.S. I’m not sure how he got rights from Diageo (they may have just let the trademark die), but what seems clear is that he ended up using Corsair Distillery in Bowling Green, KY to “partner” with as they appear to be contract distilling the recipe he has as they were the ones that filed the TTB application.
I don’t say all of this to be negative and accuse anyone of being overly mysterious, it’s just how business works sometimes. A guy wants to bring back a classic bourbon he’s read about, he finds a recipe, and he finds a distillery that will make it for him, that’s all totally cool. I do, however, become skeptical of a product when I have to research for too long, and read too many message board threads just to figure out who makes the damn stuff, but that’s just me. I’m also fully aware that quality can be independent from transparency, and this actually happens to be one of those cases.
Company: Georgetown Trading Company
Distillery: Corsair Distillery (contract)
Location: Bowling Green, Kentucky or Nashville, Tennessee
Mashbill: ?% corn/38% rye/?% barely
Age: NAS (rumored 5 years)
ABV: 50% (100 proof)
Color: Light amber
Nose: It’s no surprise that there is a ton of rye in this aroma. Behind the rye spice sits some leather, and a bit of dark red fruit (plums and cherries). While those other flavors are all there, the rye overwhelms the nose.
Taste: The first thing I noticed on this sip was the mouthfeel. This is a nice and creamy bourbon. There is a punch of rye early on, but no spice or heat from it, just that rye grain flavor. Caramel and honey start to balance out the grain as the taste evolves a bit and finally some oak comes in as well.
Finish: The pure grain flavor from the rye is replaced by the classic rye heat here. Like on the palate, the high rye characteristics are well balanced by the oak and honey sweetness and maybe a bit of citrus. It’s a good thing the finish is balanced and enjoyable, because it’s a long one.
Overall: I have to admit, after reading up on this bourbon before trying it I had fairly low expectations, but it impressed me. The back and forth from sweet to grainy to spicy is nice and ultimately results in a pretty decent pour. The only knock is that I felt like everything (with the exception of that rye) was a bit muted. I would be very interested to see how the 15 year expression compares, I have a feeling that extra age might elevate some flavors and further balance it out (although I’m not sure how that extra age would treat the rye).