How Brick Endures: Lexington’s History

On my last stay in Kentucky, we drove to Lexington’s Distillery District.

The skeleton of the James E. Pepper Distillery sprawls across 25 acres. Happily, it’s being converted into bars, restaurants, artsy hangouts: entrepreneurial hipsters are claiming its bones, and the city is all the better for it.

But I was most interested in the old rickhouse. Look at it.

The distillery’s history is intoxicating: check it out. In brief: Prohibition arrives in 1920… yet Pepper’s whiskey is one of only a few brands still permitted for “medicinal purposes.” In 1934, Kentucky sees Prohibition end. The rickhouse is built by 1936. It could hold 100,000 barrels. Times are good… until they aren’t. Bourbon starts to suffer, and come 1958, the distillery is abandoned.

Six decades pass. Rain, wind, heat.

But back in the 1930s, the Schenley Construction Company had used solid concrete, masonry, and steel-beam structures. So when humans returned in the 2010s, the buildings still stood—ready to be gutted and reinvented.

Ghost stories are already emerging though: Tony Davis, whose workshop is in the Pepper distillery, had some strange experiences. “Odd noises and pings.” An old ladder, some 12 feet tall, shifts position overnight. Bourbon stains refuse to be cleaned. In his research, Davis found that night watchmen have not fared well here…

In 1920, a night watchman was shot and killed by robbers (potentially mob members). In 1934, another night watchman assumed he’d found kerosene sitting near a stove—he was mistaken. It was gas. The fire killed him, burning down four brick warehouses as well.

Standing in front of the rickhouse, even on a sunny day, it was easy to imagine shadowy figures manifesting behind the cracked windows. The doors alone would rattle so well, with just a few sturdy thuds from the inside. That said, I doubt the new investors have much to worry about: If there are spirits here, they’re surely drinkers.

James E. Pepper Distillery’s rickhouse (Spring of 2019)
James E. Pepper Distillery’s rickhouse (Spring of 2019)

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