James E. Pepper is an old, old name in the whiskey world (Kentucky is plastered with the name), and the heritage of the Bourbon associated with the name is deep, rich, and (if you go to the whiskey’s website) fun to look back upon. In fact, Bourbon has been made under the James E. Pepper label since the 1800s.
James Pepper’s stills went silent in 1958 and in recent years the brand has changed hands and is now owned by Georgetown Trading Co., which produces Pow-Wow Rye and John L. Sullivan Irish whiskey. The company has spent years reproducing James E. Pepper to match the flavor profile of the original, “Old Style” James E. Pepper whiskey. While I’ll never be able to comment on how successful (or wise) such an endeavor might be, I can give some thoughts on the whiskeys — four of them, total — that are now being produced under this banner (in Indiana).
James E. Pepper 1776 Straight Bourbon Whiskey – The standard bottling of the brand. This Bourbon carries no age statement but has a solid structure to it. Modest wood notes here, with restrained yet polished sweetness. You get less of the typical vanilla notes but more citrus in their stead, a refined and balanced experience that provides a touch of racy red pepper, baking spices, and a little gingerbread on the finish. Very mild for a Bourbon — especially one bottled at 100 proof — this is both an easy sipping whiskey and a capable mixer. It’s far from the powerhouse experience that so many modern whiskeys attempt to create, but I found its hidden charms intriguing enough for repeated visits. B+ / $30
James E. Pepper 1776 Straight Rye Whiskey – Racier and more powerful than the Bourbon by a mile. Stronger citrus and more grain influence here, this 90% rye (no age statement) is a textbook expression of the spirit. The body is modest, lively, and full of dense bread-like notes on the back end. The finish is long and lasting. It’s just on the edge of being a little too hot, though a splash of water in this 100 proof whiskey can help to even things out. B+ / $28
These 15 year old whiskeys are bottled at barrel proof — actually lower than the 100 proof of the younger whiskeys, a quirky result of where in the rickhouse these barrels were aged. These two are just now arriving on the market.
James E. Pepper 1776 Straight Bourbon Whiskey 15 Years Old – Amazing what 15 years in barrel has done to this whiskey. Gorgeous chocolate, lightly burnt caramel, and toasty oak notes — both on the nose and on the body. That dark chocolate character is impossible to get away from, it’s just omnipresent and really quite beautiful. The wood is also well integrated into the spirit, and although I would like a touch more sweetness on the back end, this is a unique and exciting Bourbon, highly worth seeking out. 92 proof. A / $100
James E. Pepper 1776 Straight Rye Whiskey 15 Years Old – Lots going on here. Racy, lots of citrus, ample spice and some crazy tropical character here — guava and overripe banana. The wood creeps up behind, giving the whiskey a finish that is heavy on alcohol and some of the more astringent notes. It’s definitely an intriguing upgrade over the standard bottling of the rye, but it can’t touch what Pepper’s doing with the 15 Year Old Bourbon. 91.3 proof. A- / $150