Labrot and Grahams Oscar Pepper - Old Crow - Distillery, Versailles Kentucky

Date added: February 13, 2020 Categories: Kentucky Industrial Brewery
1943 Front (west) facade of distillery building after 1942 addition

Born about 1775 in Fauquier, Virginia, Elijah Pepper followed his family to Kentucky in 1797. He first established a distillery with his brother-in-law at the Big Spring behind the Woodford County Courthouse in Versailles. Bourbon County tax records and the census of 1810 show that he moved there for a three-year period before returning to Woodford County. Elijah and his wife Sarah were between the ages 26 and 45 in 1810, and they had seven children (four boys) and nine black slaves. By 1812 Elijah was paying tax on 200 acres of property along Glenn's Creek where he established his grist mill and distillery. Clear title to the property was not established until 1821 and the deed was recorded the following year. He selected the Grassy Springs Branch of the Creek for its waterway through limestone cliffs and three springs that bubbled out of the banks of the creek. Census records of 1820 confirm that the Pepper family are living in Woodford County and both are over 45 years old. Their family has not grown but their slave holdings have increased to 12. Five members of the household are involved with agriculture.

Ten years later the 1830 census confirms the success of Pepper's farmstead by the documentation of 13 male and 12 female slaves. Before March 20, 1831 Elijah Pepper died. The extent of his agricultural and distilling business is clarified by his inventory that lists hemp on hand and 8 acres ready to break, flax and flax seed, wheat, rye, 41 barrels of whiskey (1560 gallons), 6 stills, 74 mash tubs, kegs, stands, 22 horses, 113 hogs, 95 sheep, 30 lambs, and over 30 different types of cattle. Farming and timbering equipment is numerous. Household possessions include carpeting, silver, and furnishings that show wealth. No details of the interior of the house or outbuildings are provided. The list of possessions sold show that his wife Sarah purchased much farm and distillery equipment, including "stills and tubs, etc. in still house." Since Sarah inherited the property, she presumably continued the business with the help of her eldest son Oscar, who eventually took it over.

The only information known about the first distillery stems from a report of 1901 by Daniel Bowmar, Woodford Sun editor, who reported that a visit to the site that year identified only oak posts and stone remains. The location as reported by a later historian was "a short distance" above the then-current Labrot & Graham Distillery. This information is consistent with land divisions maps of 1869 and 1872 that identify the grist mill high upstream and on the east side. The earliest distillery was in the same area and apparently built of logs. Log construction would have been consistent with that used for the Pepper homestead.

The one architectural contribution from Elijah Pepper's ownership of the 350-acre site between 1812 and 1831 that remains is his former residence on the hillside of the Grassy Springs Branch of Glenn's Creek overlooking the current distillery. The two-story log house with a massive exterior limestone chimney was enlarged by a second generation of the Pepper family and subsequent homeowners who were distillers or part owners of the distillery.

Oscar Neville Pepper (1809-1865) became manager of the distillery after his father's death in 1831, but still considers himself a farmer according to census records of 1840. He was married by 1845 and presumably took over the Pepper residence by this time. Deeds and wills show that by 1851 he had acquired his siblings' shares of the division of his mother's land after her death. During Oscar's tenure of the plantation, a major addition was put on the dwelling house and the log structures of his father's milling and distillery business were replaced by stone buildings. These were formative years for the advancement of the Pepper whiskey business as the Oscar Pepper Distillery. Oscar engaged James Crow as his distillery master, and according to Oscar Pepper's deposition in a Woodford Circuit Court suit, Crow distilled for Pepper each season from 1833 until 1855, excepting 1837 and 1838. Annual production in 1855 was 80 barrels from which Crow retained compensation. When Pepper died in June 1865, a newspaper advertisement for the administrator's sale noted his personal property included "a few barrels of very old Crow Whiskey, the last chance for a good drink."

Labrot & Graham's centennial celebration in 1938 establishes the date of 1838 as the founding of the Oscar Pepper Distillery. This implies that some significant change in the status of the site had occurred that year. James Crow had been manning the stills since 1833, but was not working for Pepper in 1837 and 1838. Could it be because new construction of the distillery prevented him from tending to his labors? Regardless, the conversion to stone construction and the relocation of the distillery to the west side of the stream occurred under Oscar's ownership by 1838. This commenced a stone-building tradition at the distillery that expanded until 1918 and was reintroduced in a restoration phase after the Repeal of Prohibition. The stone construction has become a hallmark of the site.

Under Oscar Pepper's ownership, the farm and distillery flourished and his family increased to seven children. The 1860 census shows his real estate valued at $31,600 and his personal property at $36,000. His acquisition of land from his siblings after his mother's death in 1851 explains the real estate increase. His listed occupation as a farmer shows that the distillery business was not his primary income. Indeed by the time of his death in June 1865, his farmstead was assisted by eleven female slaves and twelve male slaves who would have tended the crops

and cattle listed in his household inventory totaling nearly $22,000. The 400 barrels of corn, 400 bushels of rye, 40 bushels of barley malt and 30 bushels of barley all testify to bourbon production, as does a copper still and boiler. The alcohol inventory lists 120 gallons of whisky using a 40 and 80-cent-per-gallon price. But animal husbandry was clearly another venture. The farm supported 21 horses and mares, 7 mules, 25 milk cows, 30 yearlings and steers, 56 sheep and over 100 hogs. The household was equally rich with a piano, a "refrigerator," and law books.

Oscar died without a will but left his wife with seven children and the farm and distillery business. Court settlement of Oscar's estate in 1869 divided his property holdings of 829 acres into seven unequal lots for his seven children. P. O'Bannon Pepper was only seven years old, automatically placing him under the guardianship of his mother, Nannie (1827-99). O'Bannon inherited the 160 acres containing the distillery, grist mill, and dwelling house, which carefully placed all the financially productive property in the hands of Mrs. Pepper.

As guardian of O'Bannon's inheritance, Nannie Pepper immediately leased the distillery to Gaines, Berry & Co. of Frankfort.57 The trio of investors was William A. Gaines, Hiram Berry, and Edmond H. Taylor. As of January 1, 1870, for the first time the Pepper Distillery was functioning as a bourbon-producing enterprise outside the Pepper family. James Pepper, however, at the age of 20, is listed as manager of the distillery in the 1870 census.

During the 1870s Gaines, Berry & Co. began to produce "Old Crow Whiskey" and the distillery also became known as the Old Crow Distillery. W. H. Gaines lived nearby on the Grassy Springs Road but other partners were Frankfort residents. According to an early Kentucky History, "Gaines, Berry & Co. determined to keep alive the brand, and to make their whiskey in precisely the same manner as Crow had made his. To that end they leased the old distillery where Crow had distilled during his lifetime and employed as their distiller one [W.F.] Mitchell who had learned the art under Crow and to whom Crow had imparted his method."

In the October Term Circuit Court of 1872, James Edwards Pepper (ca. 1851-1906), brought a suit against his mother, Nannie Pepper for his sixth share of the distillery site that had been allocated to his brother O'Bannon in 1869. James won the suit and received 33 acres on both sides of the creek that included sites labeled on a land division map as "Old Crow Distillery, Mill, Old Crow House," and two springs on the east side of the creek. Two years later, James Pepper and Edmund H. Taylor, Jr., who had withdrawn from Gaines, Berry & Co. in 1870, entered into an agreement whereby Taylor would make substantial improvements to the distillery and was to be reimbursed one-half the net earnings plus an additional amount for his investment. Taylor expended $25,000 on the property. Pepper eventually went bankrupt and forfeited the distillery to Taylor.

Taylor's bourbon produced at the former Pepper distillery and more readily referred to as the "Old Crow Distillery," was popular and highly prized for its barreling technique. It was during this decade of the 1870s, that the largest bourbon production in the state was emanating from Woodford County, in or just south of Frankfort, the state capital. In its March 2, 1875 issue Frankfort's Tri-Weekly Yeoman reported that "Shipments of whisky to Europe, Mexico, Cuba, and South America are often made direct from this city via New York generally, but sometimes by way of New Orleans. The costly fluid, now known the world over 'as the national beverage of America,' is put up in the stoutest of white oak barrels with a view to standing travel, and especially the jolts and jars of frequent trans-shipments and ocean voyaging. The house of E. H. Taylor, Jr., it is generally understood, furnishes the model whisky barrel of the world." But Taylor had a variety of whiskey enterprises, and economic failure occurred in 1877. A large creditor, Gregory, Stagg & Co. of St. Louis, bailed him out, causing Taylor's distillery properties to be deeded to George L. Stagg. In 1878, Stagg deeded the 33 acres of the Pepper Distillery to James H. Graham, beginning the Labrot & Graham tenure of the distillery for a 62-year duration, the longest any owner has held the site.

The Labrot & Graham partnership established a new name for a bourbon whiskey produced in a historically established distillery. The partnership created a family-oriented business with local ties to the area and a background in alcohol production. The continuation of the business under the name Labrot & Graham regardless of changes within the partnership, has over-time established the integrity and tradition of the distillery and been cause for its success despite the hiatus of Prohibition. This commitment to the name and the retention of a small industry in a rural setting by reusing the historic architecture for new production techniques has helped keep the Labrot & Graham distillery site viable into the 21st century. It has also established a continuum of use from the founding farm-distillery of 1812 to the present.

The name Labrot & Graham stems from the partnership that was established. James Hiram Graham (1842-1912) of Irish descent was born in Louisville, the son of a successful carpenter, builder, and sawmill owner, William Graham, and Esther Christopher Graham. Before he purchased the distillery, he was in the transfer business. Half interest on the property was immediately sold to Leopold Labrot, a French wine producer who immigrated to America about 1870. His background as a vintner brought him first to the workforce in the Frankfort Hermitage Distillery and later to Cincinnati, where he worked in the wholesale liquor business with an uncle.

During the 1870s when ownership of the distillery was changing hands, the Pepper residence also shifted owners. Nannie Pepper had continued to live in the house with her unmarried children, but in 1873 her son P. O'Bannon died at the age of 10. He held the 126 acres east of the distillery with the Pepper home. This tract adjoined Oscar Neville Pepper's inherited land. Presumably, due to the proximity of these properties, Oscar Neville acquired his brother's 126 acres with the dwelling house. He then sold the same property to a Fantley Johnson in 1882. In 1884 Johnson sold the dwelling house and 75 acres to Alice and James Goins. Mr. Goins was the head distiller at Labrot & Graham's Distillery. He could watch the site from his front porch as Oscar and James had done or walk down the hill and the limestone steps and across the creek directly to the distillery house. The Goins family owned the Pepper dwelling until 1906 and raised twelve children in the building. They were presumably responsible for adding the two-room east wing over a crawl space and a side porch on the south facade.

The substantive architectural improvement made to the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery of Labrot & Graham between 1895 and Prohibition was demolition of the corn house and construction of a storage shed on the creek side of Warehouses C and D. This eliminated the trestle through the property and made room for the installation of a railroad switch for shipping corn in and barrels out. At the same time, the cattle slop trough was appropriately regulated. The Kentucky Highlands Railroad had arrived to Labrot & Graham by 1911, both to bring grain to the site and to remove bourbon to market. The railroad spur is clear evidence of the increased production at local distilleries brought on by bourbon's early twentieth-century popularity. However, the railroad did not have a significant impact on the means of production at the facility prior to its abandonment after Prohibition in 1920.

Partnership and personnel changes were more numerous. In 1899, Graham retired, selling his half interest to Labrot. J. M. Vanderveer took over for Graham but the proprietorship remained Labrot & Graham. The facility continued to be known as the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery, but James Pepper, who had set up his own distillery in Lexington, sued Labrot & Graham for the use of the name "Old Pepper Whiskey." In 1911 Leopold Labrot died, leaving proprietorship in the hands of his son-in-law, Richard A. Baker.

A change in ownership of the Pepper residence occurred in 1906 when it was purchased by new owners, Richard and Mamie Hawkins who apparently had no association with the distillery. They continued to cultivate the land for tobacco and corn and had an orchard. These owners may have added the second-floor addition on the west wing of the house overlooking the creek. In 1918 the Hawkins sold the dwelling and land to Richard and Irma Baker and Gene and Mildred Wilson. The Pepper residence was then partially owned by one of the distillery owners. After the Bakers died, the house remained in the Wilson family until 1977.

The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified on January 29, 1919 instituting Prohibition that eliminated the production, sale, or transport of alcohol. Enforcement by the Volstead Act of 1920 caused the Labrot & Graham Distillery to close its doors until Repeal through ratification of the 21st Amendment in December 1933. Thirteen years passed, and during this period the distillery was vacant and unused. Goods or materials were sold for salvage and many buildings were left damaged and roofless.

Richard and Irma Baker and Claude V. Bixler, a new managing partner, incorporated Labrot & Graham in August 1933 and began the process of rebuilding its architecture. The significance of this task and the way it was accomplished contributes to the national status of this distillery over others that were rebuilt. Labrot & Graham took particular care to renovate and construct in a compatible manner. They reused stone from old warehouse ruins for additions to the distillery building and for the foundations of new masonry warehouses. The overall plan for expanding and rebuilding the distillery after 1934 is a fine example of quality industrial design that incorporated pre-existing buildings and materials and new construction materials in keeping with current labor costs and skills. The topography of the land and the needs of the industry were coordinated to produce a labor-saving and economic plant. Just as corn and the other grains had been transported down from a hillside storage shed over an elevated trestle, so the new warehouses were situated along the gentle decline of a long barrel run.

The Labrot & Graham barrel run is over 500 feet long and consists of two parallel rails spaced with the necessary width to allow barrels to move along the run without a worker to keep them in place. Its complexity, along with safety and insurance requirements, helped determine where new buildings would be constructed. The barrel run became an extensive, timesaving connector system from the Cistern Room, where barrels are first filled with spirits, to all the storage warehouses, including the re-cooper shop. The two-rail system enabled two men to handle a great number of filled bourbon barrels and quickly move them from one location to another without loading and unloading from a truck or other wheeled conveyance. The Labrot & Graham barrel run is an exceptional conveyance system when compared to the average barrel run at other distilleries.

In addition to the barrel run, the most significant addition to the rebuilt Labrot & Graham Distillery after Prohibition were the three glazed terra cotta tile warehouses E, F, and H added between 1934 and 1940. In comparison with other distilleries, most warehousing built after Repeal was wood-framed and clad in corrugated metal. The Labrot & Graham warehouses present a quality, durable material that compliments the historic limestone buildings in shape and color. These structures are all four-and-a-half stories tall but of varying lengths, constructed on raised limestone foundations and designed with heating systems for controlled aging. They emulate the construction type and shape of the limestone warehouses but are larger in every dimension. The use of terra cotta structural units represents a popular and simple construction medium for fireproof structures that was employed throughout the country during this time. The careful placement of these warehouses along the stream bank in conjunction with the barrel run was calculated to expand storage capacity. The terra cotta tiles were additionally used for other small, functional buildings that can now easily be identified as post-Repeal structures.

Despite Labrot & Graham's reconstruction, expansion, production, and storage of 25,673 barrels of whiskey in the warehouses by 1940, the ownership of the distillery changed hands. On July 18, 1940, The WoodfordSun announced the distillery's purchase by Brown-Forman Distillers Corporation, known for their brands of Old Forester and Early Times. Their purchase price for the entire plant was $75,000.

While Brown-Forman took over production and storage, concerns for mounting war efforts on the European front fostered a need for accelerated production in apprehension of war. The new site manager found insufficient supplies of water to service high production volume intended for defense purposes. The solution was to impound the creek with a concrete dam and spillway at a pre-existing railroad crossing. The work accomplished by Brown-Forman personnel created a poured concrete dam and spillway with an iron walkway. The result was a 2.75-acre pond between the banks of the creek. This water not only supplied the distillery with a constant supply for a longer annual production run but was a ready reserve for firefighting purposes. The pond established a reflective backdrop for the distillery architecture and creates a scenic and permanent focus in the landscape.

An addition to the distillery house and one small new building completed Brown-Forman's expansion of the plant by the end of 1945 and the war years. An extension to the distillery added a three-bay facade on the south side of the building to incorporate a fermenting room in 1942. Limestone and an extended standing seam metal roof were again the chosen materials to integrate the whole. A final touch was incorporating the existing inscribed millstone over the new doorway to mark the Labrot & Graham centennial in a prominent location. At the same time, to house fire equipment storage, a small, one-story six-sided limestone building with segmentally arched window and door openings was built next to the Cistern Room.

The close of the war brought an end to Brown-Forman's initial control of the distillery and created a coda to the sixty-two years that Labrot & Graham ran the plant. After 1945, Brown-Forman took up normal whiskey production and continued aging and storage, but curtailed the bottling plant at the site initiated in 1934 by Labrot & Graham. A decline in the bourbon market in the 1950s caused the termination of production in 1957. By 1965 storage was discontinued as well. The plant was closed down and Brown-Forman conveyed the property in 1973 to Freeman Hockensmith, a local farmer who used the complex for agricultural storage and a brief attempt to produce fuel alcohol.

In the early 1990s, as demand for bourbon began to show signs of a resurgence, Brown-Forman became interested in producing a premium bourbon using traditional methods. They commissioned a study of possible sites in Kentucky to establish such a facility. Their old Labrot & Graham Distillery was recommended. Late in 1994 Brown-Forman repurchased the property from Mary Ann Hockensmith. Their goal was to completely rehabilitate the facility with exterior restoration to its 1945 appearance. Interior changes for the production of premium bourbon using the original copper still process would be introduced to retain the original integrity to the highest extent. A new Visitors Center would be incorporated at the site for heritage tourism purposes. After a cost of $7.4 million dollars, on October 17, 1996 the distillery was dedicated and opened for public tours. Promoted are heritage bourbon production and the preservation of Kentucky's only distillery where expansion from a farm-distillery to a reconstructed post-Prohibition plant of 1945 vintage can be seen. In 1997 the 42+ acre site was newly expanded by the purchase of 30+ acres of Elijah Pepper's original farmstead with the springs and original dwelling house on the hill to the east. This inclusion enables the entire history of the property to be told from the Pepper's 1812 farm distilling enterprise to the present.