Pre-Prohibition Bourbon Whiskey

What the Hell is Pre-Pro Bourbon?

Ok to cut a long story short and then… go into the loooong story.  A pre-prohibition (or pre-pro for short) bourbon is Bourbon brand that existing before prohibition started in the United States in 1919.  The bourbon label is still considered pre-pro even if it was actually produced post prohibition as long as the label and the bourbon was in existence before 1920.  An example of a pre-pro bourbon that is still available today is James E Pepper bourbon and James E Pepper Rye Whiskey.

Early History of Bourbon Pre-Prohibition

By the beginning of the nineteenth century bourbon distilling was already a flourishing industry in Kentucky. As early as 1810, approximately 2,000 distilleries were operating in the state, and approximately 140 were located in and around Lexington, Kentucky. Due to limitations in transportation and expenses, the distiller’s market area was restricted to his immediate vicinity. Whiskey sales were generally influenced by local considerations, such as word-of-mouth reaction to the product and the general perception of the distiller’s reputation. It did not escape early distillery owners that their brand’s success could be enhanced by attaching the term “Old” to their product. That term referred not only to aged whiskey, but implied the distiller’s longevity and experience. The term “Old” became a major component in promoting the quality and longevity of Pepper products.

As advances in transportation, such as the growth of steamship and railroad networks, allowed for greater distribution of bourbon by the mid-nineteenth century, economic concerns increased from the implementation of the Internal Revenue Act of 1862. This act imposed a temporary excise tax on distilled spirits, causing the closure of smaller distilleries in the state. However, larger, commercial distilleries developed, primarily after the Civil War, establishing bourbon distilling as a statewide industry with a larger market beyond Kentucky’s borders. During this era, known as the first “Golden Age of Distilling,” several distilleries in Lexington and its vicinity were established or reorganised as national distilleries, including the Ashland, Commonwealth, Silver S~rings, Woodland, Lexington, and Henry Clay (on the site of the James E. Pepper distillery) distilleries.

James Pepper Distillery Pre-Prohibition
James Pepper Distillery Pre-Prohibition

The bourbon industry in Kentucky prospered through the mid- to late-nineteenth century, but near the end of the century, distillers experienced financial difficulties because of the overproduction of whiskey. By the 1890s, numerous distilleries ceased operation. The Pepper Distillery was one of the few operations in Lexington to survive through this period. A 1934 Map of the Lexington area indicates the Jas. E. Pepper & Co Distillery was the only distillery in operation by the end of Prohibition. The following lists many of the other local distilleries that had less success:

  • The Commonwealth Distillery, Sandersville, 3 miles northwest of Lexington. Ceased production in early 1900s; the distillery was demolished and warehouses used for storage. In 1915, Hillenmeyer & Sons purchased the property for a nursery. Today the nursery uses 1 brick warehouse for storage.
  • The Silver Springs Distillery, Leestown Road approximately 6 miles from Lexington. Purchased by Colonel Pepper in 1895 and operated by James E. Pepper & Co. circa ·1907 under the name Nat Harris & Little Pepper Distillery. The distillery operated until 1918, and dismantled during Prohibition.
  • Headley & Peck, located on Harrodsburg Pike about a mile outside of Lexington, operated until the turn of the nineteenth century and was converted into a farm. The distilling plant was demolished by the beginning of the twentieth century and the brick warehouse was used as a tobacco barn.
  • The Lexington Distillery, Manchester Street (Old Frankfort Pike). Demolished by 1880s; nothing today.
    • The Ashland Distillery, located adjacent to the Lexington Distillery on Manchester Street (Old Frankfort Pike), was in operation by the mid-1860s, but the distillery was dismantled by the beginning of the 1900s. The extant warehouses were used for storage until the 1960s, and the bottling plant that was constructed circa 1909 burned in 1986.
  • During the mid- to late-nineteenth century the Grimes Distillery operated on Boone Creek off of U.S. 421 near Grimes Mill. This distillery was dismantled by the 1890s and the mill was later converted into the Iroquois Hunt Clubhouse.
  • Other smaller distilleries in Fayette County that were in operation until the second half of the nineteenth century include the H.D. Owings Distillery on Russell Springs Pike, the I.H. Davidson Distillery one mile north of Athens, the Atkins and Shawbrun Distillery in the Dog Fennel Precinct, Adams and Druers Distillery near Athens, the Carter & McDonald Distillery on Combs Ferry Pike, the James O. Petit Distillery on Boone Creek, the John Robb Distillery at Waveland, the Reid Distillery, and the Foley Distillery at South Elkhorn on Lexington, Harrodsburg, and Perryville turnpike.

Because of the perceived overindulgence of liquor consumption, several temperance movements were started in the United States in the early to mid-nineteenth century. These groups were particularly active in the early 1830s, and legislation was enacted to regulate the whiskey industry by taxation. Largely forgotten during the Civil War, the pursuit to regulate the industry became strong once again by the late 1860s. By the late 1910s temperance leagues made a considerable impact on the decline of whiskey consumption, and as a result of these temperance movements, along with economic factors, the 18th Amendment was introduced by the United States Congress in 1917 and eventually ratified in January, 1919. Recognising a need for legislation to enforce the 18th Amendment, the National Prohibition Act was introduced by Representative Andrew J. Volstead of Minnesota and passed by Congress in October, 1919. Over President Wilson’s veto, the National Prohibition Act (also referred to as the Volstead Act) was enacted at 12:01 a.m. on January 20, 1920, thereby prohibiting the transport, sale, barter, trade, manufacture, delivery, and possession of intoxicating liquors.  Damn, big mistake!


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