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The James E. Pepper Distillery Gets A Facelift

While some distilleries are getting a facelift to resurrect a piece of their former glory, the former James E. Pepper distillery in Lexington, Kentucky is moving into a new era with a fresh, yet controversial, coat of paint.

Sponsored by PRHBTN and crowd funded by the residents of Lexington and beyond, the mural is an extremely large “self-portrait” created by French artist MTO located on the large warehouse that faces all who approach the complex from downtown Lexington via Manchester Street.

There is a narrative to the artwork showcased in the video and transcribed below. While some of the points made in the narrative don’t necessarily apply to the James Pepper Distillery, they are valid for most others during the era of Prohibition.

If anything, the video provides a glimpse into the ruins of the distillery that I haven’t had the chance to explore myself in many years, and that most have never had the chance to see.

Video Transcription

My Name Is Mo and this is my story..

In 1919 the “Volstead Act” declared effective alcohol prohibition in United States. All distilleries in the country closed. One after another. The black market network developed, bringing the creation of clandestine distilleries.

In 1933 prohibition was abolished and legal alcohol production started again, but numerous companies stayed closed because 14 years of inactivity rendered them obsolete. They were too degraded to start again.

I was born 40 years later in 1973, in a small city in Kentucky named Lexington. In the early nineties I was a teenager and fascinated by the New York art scene, particularly by the recent rise of a new form of illegal art called graffiti.

I started scheming around every corners of my city with aerosol spray cans and wrote my name everywhere I went. One day while I was painting in an old abandoned distillery, police saw me from afar and tried to arrest me. I fled into the huge empty warehouse next to it, formerly used for bourbon storage and refining.

The police didn’t find me. But in passing they closed and locked the door I used to come in. I found myself alone and trapped in this very big structure without anyone knowing I was there. Two days passed without finding any means to escape. So I was forced to accept my sad fate. I was going to die here alone!

However I made a very surprising discovery when I was looking for a way to escape. I found a small trap door very well hidden under a mound of trash. This door led to an enormous subterranean network containing a gargantuan stockpile of fine aged bourbon. This amazing cache of bourbon had been most likely concealed by very well organized smugglers during prohibition and had never been found as the smugglers spent their final days in jail.

In desperation, I started to drink recklessly in order to hasten my death and maybe add a little joy and delusion. But then – something absolutely unexpected and inexplicable happened: I didn’t die. Despite the lack of food and water, the bourbon was nourishing me. It was keeping me alive.

As time passed my body was undergoing some very disturbing changes to say the least. Two arms started to grow from my back, and the gas mask I usually use to paint slowly started to graft to my face, which had become disfigured.

But above all the most impressing thing was that I started growing. Growing a lot. So much growing that people in Lexington eventually discovered me, but it was too late. Nearly 25 years had passed, I couldn’t go back to a regular life.

I had become a monster.

A Brief History of the James E. Pepper Distillery

James E. Pepper Distillery 1936

For starters, the artist mentions all distilleries were closed as a result of Prohibition, but this is simply not true. Some distilleries remained open and the Pepper Distillery was one of them. To portray this structure as a symbol of the devastation caused by prohibition, as the artist does, is misleading. As Richard Thomas summarizes,

“The Pepper distillery was one of a handful in America that survived the Prohibition era intact, largely because it became both a licensed ‘medicinal whiskey’ producer and because it became an official warehouse agent under the Federal government’s concentration-and-control scheme for Prohibition era spirits.”

There were two major reasons a distillery survived Prohibition, and the James Pepper Distillery benefitted from both. The first was the Liquor Concentration Act of 1922, which consolidated stocks of whiskey in select warehouses under government supervision. At the beginning of Prohibition there were about 800 bonded warehouses housing whiskey nationwide, but by 1922 most stocks had been transferred to Kentucky. Due to its stability, and ability to securely store large amounts of whiskey, the James E. Pepper Distillery was designated as one of the sites to house this stock. Other notable distilleries to house whiskey during this period were the George T. Stagg distillery, The Glenmore Distillery, and the Old Grand Dad Distillery.

The second way a distillery survived Prohibition was through the supervised production and sale of whiskey for medicinal purposes. During the time leading up to prohibition, whiskey had already established a market as an antiseptic and painkiller, and was also prescribed by physicians to fight influenza. Since the late 1800s, Pepper and other producers had already marketed their whiskey products as such.

During Prohibition, Kentucky was among 25 other states to sanction whiskey for medicinal purposes, and those distilleries designated to maintain production and sales of whiskey throughout Prohibition were able to maintain brand recognition, but more importantly, profit. As a testament to this, by 1923 James E. Pepper whiskey was endorsed by more than 40,000 physicians nationwide, with cases being sold at almost six times their pre-Prohibition price.

After the repeal of prohibition in 1933, the Pepper Distillery was poised for expansion. In 1934, the distillery was one of many acquired by Schenley to create what would become the largest distilling company in the United States through expansion of modern industrial production capacity.

The Pepper distillery’s physical significance lies not only in its pre-prohibition existence, but in its technological and overall production advances during the post-repeal era. It is a great example of success and resilience during prohibition, as well as the acceleration of industrial technology post-repeal.

Unfortunately, despite overcoming many obstacles since repeal, World War II for example, the distillery eventually ended production in 1958.

Artistic Parallels

MTO James E Pepper Distillery

While perhaps not a parallel with this particular distillery, the conceptualization of Prohibition detailed in the work’s narrative does parallel the long-time “oppression” of street art, as graffiti and whiskey-making have both been considered poisons to society. It’s a stretch to entertain the thought, but it’s there nonetheless.

Considering the history, the artwork (although ironically unintentional and misaligned) does draw a comparison between the distillery’s resilience and the place of street art in the city of Lexington through creating such an audacious piece of work on such a significant piece of history. This certainly breeds discourse, which I suppose is the end goal of this piece [in negligence of the blatant narcissism].

What strikes me as amusing is the fact that this mural screams of the oppressive stature society holds towards its genre of art, yet it was legally commissioned and as such will remain in place without threat of removal.

Prohibition was a massively oppressive move to destroy the spirits business, but it seems those with enough money and the right connections made it through hard times relatively unscathed. If anything is oppressed today, or imprisoned as the mural depicts, it’s those in the neighborhood with a negative opinion of the art, not the art itself.

On a positive note, Lexington’s art scene now boasts another gigantic mural created by an internationally known artist. Is this work another a beacon of the city’s creative ability [to bring in outside talent]?

The Arts and The Distillery District

The bigger picture that has often been overlooked by many is the recent history of Lexington’s distillery district which, since distilleries shut their doors long ago, has been more of a home to artists and artistic event spaces than it has been to distilling (at least until recently). Despite numerous attempts to revitalize the area, it would likely remain neglected to this day if it were not for artists calling attention to it.

New business has slowly moved into the area as the city’s downtown naturally expands, but this particular part of town still isn’t frequented by the average Lexingtonian. The paradox is that some claim such artwork makes this area even less inviting than the solitary deprecated and abandoned buildings lining its streets for many years, which brings us to the controversy, and at which point I digress.

Hats off to PRHBTN and MTO for pulling off a massive feat.

Related Reading

Whiskey in History: James E. Pepper

The James E. Pepper Distillery and Lexington’s Lost Bourbon Industry

James E. Pepper Distillery, Lexington, KY Historic Context [PDF]

Manchester St mural causes concern, sparks discussion about public art