Friday, July 10, 2009

Thoughts on the Proposed Revival of James E. Pepper Bourbon.

Yesterday, a post appeared in the discussion forum at The poster announced that he is "working on a project to relaunch the old James E. Pepper brand and wanted to see if anybody had some thoughts on a good distillery to partner with."

James E. Pepper was the son of Oscar Pepper and grandson of Elijah Pepper. James started his company in 1879, in Lexington. The family was out of it after James died in 1906, but the James E. Pepper brand returned after Prohibition and was sold until about 1960. United Distillers (now Diageo) relaunched James E. Pepper bourbon into Eastern Europe in 1994, primarily into the Czech Republic, where it apparently had been popular before WWII.

Because I receive similar inquiries from time to time, I thought the readers of this space might find my reply to this one useful. Here it is:

You probably know that bourbon whiskey is very dear right now and very hard to obtain for a project such as yours. Non-distiller producers have been struggling for several years now and many who depended on the spot market have gone out of business.

If by "partner" you mean something more than "supplier," the odds get even longer.

Your best bet might be to establish a relationship with CMDK in Owensboro. Perhaps if Angostura got a few contracts they would see their way clear to accelerate the return of that distillery to production. Properly financed and motivated, they could probably start producing in six months or less.

Especially if you want to use a historic recipe, you need to work with someone who wants to be that kind of producer.

Your other best bet may be to spread the word among all the producers of how much you will pay to anyone who will sell you the whiskey you need. Distilleries are constantly making adjustments and in the current financial environment, some of the producers may need to unload some inventory in the short term, even as they increase production overall.

The thing is, warehouse space is at a premium right now too. You will have a better chance of obtaining some suitable whiskey if you are prepared to accept delivery of it immediately. To do that you will need, at minimum, a warehouse and the necessary federal and state licenses.

Another part of the problem is that no current producer has a real connection to Pepper, the way Buffalo Trace has to Old Taylor, for example. The closest would be Brown-Forman, since the Pepper family originally established the distillery now known as Woodford Reserve, but the connection is tenuous for James. Plus BF is probably the company least likely to be interested in a partnership. It's just not their style.

I'm not sure what sort of information you thought this group could give you. If you wanted to know which distilleries are most beloved, they all have their fans.

In recent years, the fastest-growing American whiskey brands have been new ones, like Maker's Mark, Knob Creek, and Woodford Reserve. Brown-Forman has had some success reviving Old Forester, but that is a unique situation.

In general, pre-prohibition brands have not fared well in the current era. Jack Daniel's is just about the only exception.

Four Roses could perhaps be an example but it too is in many ways unique.

But perhaps reviving pre-Prohibition brands is the next big thing. Keep an eye on Buffalo Trace and Old Taylor.

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