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

In 1812, Elijah Pepper selected his farm alongside Glenn's Creek as an excellent place to support both diversified agriculture and a distilling operation. The protective valley and stream banks created by the Grassy Springs Branch with its limestone-filtered springs provided both the necessary water power for running a grain mill plus clean water for fermenting and distilling. The higher, flat hillside on both sides of the creek served for a residence and agricultural and grazing land.

Changes in ownership, management, and technology over more than a hundred years greatly influenced the development of the site and the architecture that remains today. In general, the distillery began and grew as a farm-distilling industry under three generations of the Pepper family. The expertise of Scotsman James Crow, master distiller under Oscar Pepper from 1833-1855, contributed to the success and fame of the bourbon produced by the Peppers.

Farming to raise the grain for fermentation was the longest task. Distilling itself was carried out only four to five months of the year using copper stills. Through estate land divisions, by 1872 the remaining 326-acre Pepper tract had been carved into various parcels, and the thirty-three acre distillery site was sold to Labrot & Graham, who owned and operated the distillery for sixty-three years. During this time, either the distillery managers or owners lived in the Pepper's log residence overlooking the distillery.

At the enactment of Prohibition in 1920 Labrot & Graham sealed and shut the ten stone buildings that formed their expanded column still complex, leaving everything intact. Resumption of the industry in 1933 by a newly incorporated Labrot & Graham firm rebuilt the old buildings but also brought further new construction and materials, specifically three glazed clay tile warehouses and the gravity barrel run. Purchase of the distillery in 1940 by Brown-Forman initiated new water and fire-safety standards resulting in the construction of the concrete dam and spillway to form a pond.

Between 1945 and 1973 little new construction was carried out by Brown-Forman. Additionally, the distilling industry went into a general decline. The site was sold to a farmer for storage use, remaining neglected for twenty years. In 1994 Brown-Forman, a corporation producing other alcoholic beverages, repurchased their former distillery to initiate the production of a long-aging specialty bourbon that would be produced, stored, and bottled at the site. Full rehabilitation of the setting and existing buildings was undertaken from 1994 to 1996 to create a newly functioning distillery as well as a heritage tourism site where the historic industrial architecture could tell the history of Kentucky bourbon production.

The earliest building that remains on this property is the log house Elijah and Sarah Pepper built upon settling the land. Elijah Pepper had participated in a mill and distillery business with a brother-in-law in Versailles at the beginning of the 1800s, but no primary records have been found. Pepper paid tax in Bourbon County on other land in 1810, and then settled in Woodford County by 1812. Elijah cultivated a prosperous farm and distilling business well documented by census records and the inventory of his estate upon his death in 1831.

Elijah Pepper's log house, which has been enlarged by four significant building campaigns, is built into the slope of the hill directly east of the creek and the distillery complex. Access by foot from the still house is across the pond on a metal catwalk and up a steep flight of original limestone steps set into the hillside. South of the steps on the hillside is a stone spring box, modernized with concrete, to catch one of the bubbling springs.

The Pepper House, viewed from the west, appears as a white, ell-shaped form. The rectangular main block with a gable roof consists of two stories set into the hill on an east-west axis. The gable-roofed wing forming an ell is only one story and extends north from the eastern end of the building. The west gable end looking over the valley features a columned front porch set on a seven-foot stone foundation to compensate for the topography of the hillside.

A distinctive structure on the east exterior facade is a large evenly coursed cut limestone chimney that corbels up from the higher elevation of the land as if to anchor the building in the hillside. The chimney is built into the gable end of a squared and dove-tail notched log wall of broad timbers that extends two stories. At the attic level wood clapboard closes the peak. The chinking is a broad, flat, white lime-based mortar in good condition. This was the earliest section of the house, built with two bays on both the north and south facades over a two-thirds stone foundation. The original two bays at the second-story level are distinguishable on the east end of the south facade.

The gable roof of rusted corrugated metal extends over two building sections of two bays each on the second floor. The division of the building is articulated by changes in the artificial siding that has been applied over earlier wood clapboard. The windows are all replacement one-over-one sash on this level. On the first floor, a pent porch roof mimics the gable roof in length. The facade is divided by four stone entrance steps and the entrance door. Irregular fenestration clarifies the two building sections. At the east end a former open porch has been enclosed, accounting for a trio of windows on the east end facade and three pairs of double-hung multipane sash, the door, and a single double-hung window on the south facade. This section aligns with the earliest section of the building. The western section, over a shallower foundation, includes a single small window.

The west facade that overlooks the creek features a front porch on a stone foundation that is narrower than the facade and appears centrally placed in the full dimension. Its hipped roof is supported by four Doric columns in the front and two at the walls with a simple wooden rail and balusters. Entrance to the porch is only from the first-floor room through a central entrance door. Photographic evidence from 1936 indicates that at that time a wide staircase descended off the porch. Two windows exist in this facade: one at the north corner, the other just south of the door. At the second-floor level, a small square window is found in the center of the facade above the porch roof. Both exterior and interior construction materials of the second floor of this west section of the house indicate that the second-floor rooms and roof were added during the 20th century. This is particularly visible on the north facade where different sidings have been used.

The north side of the house features a one-story clapboard wing that extends north on a stone footing. It attaches to the log house just west of the easternmost window bay. Its gable roof terminates below the eaves of the main building. A tall brick chimney is located in the center of the roof but west of the ridge. The east facade of the wing has an off-center entrance and two one-over-one windows. The gable-end north facade features both a large and small window in the eastern half. The original windows of the south side of the west facade have been converted to a picture window; two double-hung sashes occur to the north, also replacements.

When Elijah Pepper died in 1831 he left his remaining land (326 acres) and his house to his wife Sarah. After her death, it was to be divided among their eight children. Sarah's purchase of much farming and distillery equipment at the estate sale implied she carried on the farming and distilling business. Assistance presumably came from her two oldest boys, Samuel and Oscar, and the slaves she acquired. When Elijah's wooden still house was abandoned for a more permanent stone structure is not known, but there is substantial evidence that by 1838 the first stone still house existed for Oscar Pepper's Distillery. This is deduced from close inspection of a photograph of 1883 showing a barrel head advertising the "Old Oscar Pepper Distillery 1838". Furthermore, Labrot & Graham celebrated their centennial in 1938, an uncontested date apparently based on Oscar's founding date of 1838. It is known from a court deposition that Oscar Pepper had employed James Crow as his distiller in 1833, and he worked in this capacity through 1855. For an undisclosed reason, during 1837 and 1838 Crow was relieved of his duties. Perhaps the construction of the new distillery during this period precluded Crow's employment.

The earliest site maps that show a distillery are the land division records of Oscar Pepper's estate from 1869 and a plat showing a redistribution of the distillery site to James Pepper in 1872. Both identify the still house on the west side of the stream, springs, and the grist mill east of the stream and north of the distillery. The earliest known photograph of the distillery dates from 1883 during Labrot & Graham's ownership. This provides the first full visual understanding of the buildings at the site. An artistic rendition used for a warehouse receipt of the first decade of the 20th century depicts the buildings of the 19th century with accuracy. From these documents, one can conclude that the second oldest extant building on the site after the dwelling house are portions of the distillery house or "still house." The two stone warehouses are documented by 1870. They remained on the site and in use until Prohibition. They were demolished in 1934 due to frail condition, but much stone was reused. A bottling house took over some of the site. Today only the foundation footprints of the bottling house remain. Just as the process of making bourbon whiskey has evolved over time, so have the buildings in which it was manufactured. Tracking the changes, additions, and demolitions of these buildings is the best way to understand the chronology and history of the current distillery.

In 1886 the Labrot & Graham "Old Oscar Pepper Distillery," Registered No. 52, 7th District Woodford County, KY includes a corn house, a bridge and truck track to move the corn to the corn sheller, a pool, a whiskey pipe that leads to the cistern room, bonded warehouse A for 4500 barrels, bonded warehouse B for 4500 barrels, each with patented racks (often called "ricks") for storage. A coopers shop, a staves shed, scale, and office are shown.

By 1894 the following have been added: bonded Warehouse C for 5000 barrels with steam heat, a granary with a trestle to the corn sheller, a second pool, enlarged cooper shop, steam heat in the other warehouses.

Added by 1896 is Bonded Warehouse D for 5000 barrels attached by a shed to Warehouse C. A two-story porch has been added to the distillery.

By 1903 the main additions are porches around the entrances to Warehouses A and B and a bonded bottling house attached to Warehouses C and D. In 1910 the site around the buildings is developed with a driveway and a drain into the creek. The Warehouse capacities have all increased. Heat is no longer used in Warehouses A and B. Slop tubs and connecting pipes are installed, a heating boiler exists, and a new storage facility parallel to Warehouses C and D shows that it is used for cotton seed and other storage. A dwelling house is added to the hill off the driveway.

By 1912 the Kentucky Highlands Railroad Switch runs into the site, additional drainage lines are shown, and a rectangular feed headquarters building below Warehouses C and D exists. A small office with a porch occurs near the dwelling house.

The 1936 map identifies the major changes that took place after the repeal of Prohibition: The Warehouses A and B are reduced in size and converted to shops and stock rooms. The cooperage becomes a shed. The cistern room is converted to a government office and the whiskey pipe is eliminated. Three fuel oil tanks are added behind the government office. The two covered cisterns become service reservoirs and a new, rectangular cistern is added. The scale house and office is expanded into a larger office. The original distillery building loses its porch and becomes totally encapsulated in an expanded facility. The cotton seed and storage house is converted to a slop dryer house. Warehouses C and D are now heated and the bottling house is removed. Added to the site are three glazed tile Warehouses, E, F, and H and a barrel house east of Warehouse E. On the hillside the small office aligned with Warehouse D is converted to a gatehouse. The elevated barrel run is under construction. Two new dwelling houses close to McCracken Pike are included in the site.

Four years later in 1940 when the distillery is fully functional, new roadways are clearly defined, the barrel run is complete, a recoopering shop has been added near Warehouse F, and a new brick bottling house and a case goods storage house stand where former Warehouses A and B had existed. The distillery shows further refinements regarding water and power supplies, in particular an expanded boiler house fueled by coal and pump houses and wells. The addition of the dam in 1941-42 to impound the stream added a different landscape feature to the site that remains today.