National Register Nomination for the James E. Pepper Distillery in Lexington, Kentucky

Overview of the James E. Pepper Distillery in Lexington, Kentucky.

Overview of the James E. Pepper Distillery in Lexington, Kentucky.

The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of the Nation’s historic places worthy of preservation. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America’s historic and archaeological resources. To be considered eligible, a property must meet the National Register Criteria for Evaluation. This involves examining the property’s age, integrity, and significance.

CRA has extensive experience preparing National Register nominations. In 2009 alone, we completed over a dozen nominations for a variety of clients including federal agencies and private owners. The James E. Pepper Distillery is an example of one of the properties successfully nominated to the National Register by CRA. The James E. Pepper Distillery complex is located on the south side of Manchester Street (Old Frankfort Pike) approximately .21 miles southeast of South Forbes Road in the city of Lexington, seat of Fayette County, Kentucky. Constructed in 1880, the James E. Pepper Distillery was the only fully operational whiskey distillery in Fayette County, Kentucky, during the post-Repeal era. The Pepper distillery stands as the sole expression of the local industrial heritage to survive Prohibition and to continue operations within modern, state of the art facilities. While other distilleries in Kentucky survived Prohibition, the Pepper Distillery is considered to be a particularly uniform and intact example.

History of the Distillery

Adopted from the NRHP Nomination

The original distilling plant located on the site, known as the Henry Clay Distillery, was constructed in 1869 by John A. Headley and James A. Farra.  Located a mile outside the city limits on Old Frankfort Pike, Headley and Farra purchased 400 acres for $2,000 from Judge George Robertson in January 1869.  This location is in close proximity to McConnell Springs, considered to be the founding site of Lexington. The distilling plant operated from 1869-1871 when a fire destroyed the structure, a loss totaling approximately $15,000.

While the Henry Clay operation emerged as a national distiller in the post-Civil War era, the fire of 1871 had sufficiently crippled the business, so that, in 1872 the federal government sold the property for unpaid taxes. During the period between 1875 and 1879 the site was used as a pork processing plant, the Bluegrass Pork House.  George C. Buchanan of Newcomb, Buchanan & Co., whiskey brokers from Louisville bought the property, then shortly thereafter sold it to George A. Starkweather, Jr. in April of 1880. Starkweather formed a partnership with Colonel James E. (Edward) Pepper in 1879, and the plant was reconverted for whiskey production.

Beginning of the James E. Pepper Distillery
The still located at the James E. Pepper Distillery property.

The still located at the James E. Pepper Distillery property.

Starkweather and Pepper invested $250,000 to build a new distillery operation. Pepper designed the new distillery and layout of the equipment and hired prominent architect John McMurty to carry out the plans and specifications. The new plant was constructed in April 1880.

From 1880-1901, Pepper built six bonded warehouses on the property. The Louisville, Cincinnati, and Lexington railroad (later the Louisville and Nashville railroad) laid tracks on both sides of the distillery, with access to the plant on the Frankfort Pike side.  The distillery obtained its water supply from the nearby farm of Colonel Wilson, a seemingly inexhaustible spring, which during the 1880s served as the waterworks for the city.  Pepper continued to operate the distillery until his death on December 24, 1906 at the age of fifty-five. On May 15, 1907 a group of Chicago investors acquired the distillery from Colonel Pepper’s estate.  The Pepper plant distilled for the last time on November 11, 1918, though continued functioning as a concentrated warehouse site for whiskey during Prohibition from 1920-1934.

New Owners

Anticipating the repeal of Prohibition, Schenley Products purchased the Pepper company for one million dollars in 1933. Schenley readopted the Jas. E. Pepper Co. name and began bottling “James E. Pepper” whiskey.  A new distilling plant was constructed January 1934. Modern industrial equipment was installed in the building. A major improvement was for the design of the plant to be constructed of fireproof materials. The plant’s capacity was increased and production was scheduled to resume in May 1934.On-site production ceased in 1958; however, the distillery was still used to house the bourbon until the 1970s. The property was then bought by the Land Development Company and used as warehouse space. Although the property  no longer functioned as a distillery, in 1994 United Distillers re-established the “James E. Pepper” brand for export outside the United States. The company operated as the Jas. E. Pepper Distillery with production at the Bernheim Distillery in Louisville, Kentucky. For a complete historical context, you can read the entire NRHP nomination.

Developing a context for evaluation is a fundamental concept of the National Register evaluation process. CRA is proud to note that, on their official website, the National Park Service uses the Pepper Distillery nomination prepared by CRA as an example of how to write a historic context for a property eligible under Criterion A.
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