Distilling was a significant Lexington industry in the 19th century and continued to impact Lexington into the 20th century. In the Old Frankfort Pike area, distilleries operated at three different sites. The Pepper Distillery may be the one to focus on because one of its owners, James E. Pepper, was an important business and social figure in Lexington. He was the third generation of his family engaged in distilling in Kentucky. James E. Pepper managed a successful stable of thoroughbreds and he owned the land where the Meadowthorpe subdivision is located. The drink called the “Old Fashioned” was supposedly created for him in Louisville.
His grandfather, Elijah Culpepper, came from Culpepper County, Virginia to Kentucky when it was still a county of Virginia. Legend has it that some time around 1776, Elijah Culpepper settled at what came to be known as the “Old Pepper Spring” near Lexington on the Frankfort Pike. There he supposedly built a log cabin distillery about 1780. The story goes that Elijah Culpepper, finding his name “too long and too troublesome to write,” dropped the “Cul” and became Elijah Pepper.
Elijah Pepper’s son, Oscar Pepper, operated several distilleries in Kentucky including the current Labrot and Graham’s Old Oscar Pepper Distillery and another in Versailles. He hired James C. Crow as his master distiller. James Crow is known for using his knowledge of biochemistry to introduce scientific principles into the distilling process. Together the two men brought fame to the Old Crow and Old Pepper brands. Their whiskey became a big hit with men such as Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, John Calhoun, Ulysess S. Grant, William Henry Harrison, and Daniel Webster. Labrot and Graham’s Old Oscar Pepper Distillery is named for Oscar Pepper.