Of the handful of Kentucky bourbon distilleries, Woodford Reserve is one of the oldest. A distiller named Elijah Pepper began producing small amounts of whiskey in 1797 in his little set up, just behind the Woodford County Courthouse in Versailles, Kentucky. His product was popular and it was not long before he required a more substantial premises. Elijah founded his new distillery in 1812, on Grassy Springs in Glenn’s Creek, not far outside of Versailles. Following Elijah’s death in 1831, his son Oscar Pepper hired Dr James Crow as the head distiller. Crow was a Scotsman and both physician and chemist. It seems he was also an innovator for he is credited with championing sour mash fermentation, a key process with regards to the consistency of bourbon. The distillery was then producing whiskey of wide acclaim and noteworthy devotees were the Kentucky statesman Henry Clay and the renowned author and illustrious stogieman Mark Twain. Oscar Pepper died in 1865 and in 1878 the distillery was acquired by whiskey broker, Leopold Labrot and his partner, the merchant James Graham, both hailed from Kentucky. Labrot and Graham extended the facilities and ran their business under the name The Old Oscar Pepper Distillery.
Save for closure during Prohibition, Labrot and Graham ran the distillery until 1940 when it was acquired by Brown-Forman Corp of Louisville. The distillery was intended to help the brand cope with the surge in demand following the abolition of Prohibition. Sadly, the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery fell into disuse shortly after, when smaller, artisan-style distilleries were deemed too costly and inefficient. It was not until 1994 that Brown-Forman repurchased the distillery; their dream now was to sell a handcrafted whiskey at the distillery credited with championing the spirit. They renamed it The Woodford Reserve Distillery in 2003 and credit Labrot and Graham on their bottles. There has been a long association with horseracing; Woodford Reserve is the official bourbon of both the Breeder’s Cup and the Kentucky Derby.