Review: James E. Pepper Old Henry Clay Straight Rye Whiskey

Review: James E. Pepper Old Henry Clay Straight Rye Whiskey

Lexington’s James E. Pepper Distilling Company is clearly sitting on a healthy stock of Indiana rye. The distillery bottles five different rye expressions, including a barrel proof and a single barrel. Almost all of those are released under the 1776 label with the outlier being Old Henry Clay Straight Rye Whiskey. Where does that name come from? You should know by now, there’s always a story.

A gifted politician, Henry Clay (1777 – 1852) famously used to ship barrels of whiskey from the Oscar Pepper Distillery to the Willard Hotel on each journey to Washington for use in his diplomatic efforts. After his death, the Henry Clay Distillery was built in Lexington, Kentucky in 1869, only to be destroyed by fire a few years later. The distillery was later acquired and rebuilt by the then famed distiller, Col. James E. Pepper, the son of Oscar, and renamed the James E. Pepper Distillery. Although renamed, the distillery continued to also bear the original name of the Henry Clay Distillery and produced Henry Clay Rye Whiskey.

So there you go. And how does this particular Indiana rye with a Kentucky heritage taste?

The first thing I notice on the nose is dill pickle, a telltale sign of MGP rye. There’s clove and cinnamon, eucalyptus, some subtle fruit, and a touch of cracked black pepper in the mix, but it’s all pretty savory. The dill note isn’t nearly as sharp as some other MGP ryes I’ve encountered, and it balances well with an overall rye bread aroma. The body is surprisingly rich. It’s not nearly as savory as the nose, that rye bread becoming more breakfast pastry with cinnamon and vanilla frosting. There’s ample brown sugar and oak, and a touch of white raisin. It’s all a little short-lived, but the experience is impressive enough for a sub-$30 rye.

86 proof.

A- / $24 /

James E. Pepper Old Henry Clay Straight Rye Whiskey




Drew Beard is assistant editor for Drinkhacker and winner of several booze-related merit badges, including Certified Specialist in Spirits and Executive Bourbon Steward. A former federal employee turned hotelier and spirits journalist, he looks forward to his next midlife crisis.

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