Review: Old Pepper Bourbon, Rye, and James E. Pepper Bourbon (2024)

Review: Old Pepper Bourbon, Rye, and James E. Pepper Bourbon (2024)

Like many American whiskey brands of late, the Old Pepper/James E. Pepper brand has gone through all kinds of changes since we first encountered it in 2013. At the time, the brand was a relaunch of an ancient label that hadn’t been produced since 1958 (or 1961, depending on who you trust), taking advantage of then-abundant MGP stock and riding the bourbon wave courtesy of Pepper nostalgia.

In December 2017, the Pepper Distillery began producing its own whiskey in Lexington, Kentucky, and it’s been steadily churning out new make ever since. Now those whiskeys are maturing and hitting the market, with new labels and, of course, an all new drinking experience.

While the old 1776 brand is still available, Pepper has three homegrown whiskeys now available, all three of which we review here.

Of special note is how complicated the recipes for these spirits are. The bourbons are complex blends of four different whiskeys made with both raw and malted rye, plus corn and barley malt, and aged in a variety of barrel types including toasted and char levels 1 through 4. Similarly with the rye, two whiskeys are used in the blend. One is 95% raw rye, 5% malted rye; the other is 100% malted rye. The final blend goes into toasted and charred barrels.

Old Pepper Bourbon (2024) – Bottled in bond, no age statement otherwise. This is a surprisingly soft whiskey for 50% abv, the nose a quiet reflection on peanut, toasted corn, and lighter lashings of honey. Savory with ample wood reflected, I searched for fruit here for a long while but invariably came up empty. The palate is on the austere side with an umami edge, but some minor sweetness emerges to make room for notes of wildflower honey, toasted coconut, and walnut oil. The peanut-popcorn connection remains a powerful through-line though, and despite a late-game appearance of a pinch of red pepper, the wood-heavy frontier quality of the whiskey is never far from reach, taking an increasingly savory turn as the finish builds. Nothing shocking to report on the whole; fans of more barrel- and cereal-driven bourbons will enjoy this the most. 100 proof. B / $50

Old Pepper Rye (2024) – This unique spin on the 100% rye formula pulls no punches when it comes to grassy, herbal notes, the nose bold with elements of terpenes and a slight petrol character. Toasty and bready, any fruitiness in the mix is more akin to banana bread made with plenty of toasted walnuts. On the palate the whiskey sweetens up noticeably but with measured restraint, notes of brown sugar and honey syrup informing elements of Christmas cake, Maraska cherries, and more of a crunchy, dried banana note. Honey again perks up on the finish, touching up the unendingly herbal through-line to take things to a lengthy and lightly sweet conclusion. It’s a little brooding on its own but as a cocktail base it shines more brightly. B+ / $50

James E. Pepper Barrel Proof Bourbon (2024) – A barrel proof version of Old Pepper Bourbon, in a fancier bottle — though at 105.4 proof vs. 100 proof on the standard edition, it’s not a dramatic boost in abv. A bit spicier and more racy on the nose, there’s still a strong peanut quality here that’s balanced by a pinch of cardamom and an even smaller pinch of cinnamon. A bit creamier on the palate but still full of peanut and popcorn notes, the whiskey eventually turns toward notes of milk chocolate and vanilla, with a peppery edge. Just as nutty but visibly more refined than Old Pepper thanks to a soothing late-game fruitiness that evokes some extra age. Tasted side by side. 105.4 proof. Reviewed: Batch #3. B+ / $65

James E. Pepper Barrel Proof Bourbon (2024)




Christopher Null is the founder and editor in chief of Drinkhacker. A veteran writer and journalist, he also operates Null Media, a bespoke content creation company.

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