Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Labrot & Graham Kept the Pepper Pot Boiling

Foreword:  In my last post the Pepper distilling family of Kentucky were featured, from the founder, Elijah, down to his grandson, James.  As recounted there, James experienced financial difficulties and was declared bankrupt in 1877.  That eventually led to the transfer of the Pepper distillery in 1878 to Leopold Labrot and James Graham of Frankfort, Kentucky.  They would own and operate the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery until the advent of National Prohibition and even after.  Not, however, without encountering a challenge from James Pepper.  

Leopold Labrot was born in France in 1847 or possibly earlier, depending on which U.S. census report one reads.  Labrot is said to have grown up in the wine-growing areas of his native land and have had experience in the wine trade when he came to the United States.  Census data records Labrot’s immigration year as 1865 when he was about 32.  According to his passport description, Leopold was five feet, seven inches tall, with a dark complexion, gray eyes and an aquiline nose.

If census data is accurate, Labrot must have settled almost immediately in Kentucky because he soon married a Frankfort woman.  She was Louisa Welch, the daughter of Arabella Scott Davis and Sylvester Welch.  Her father was the chief engineer for the State of Kentucky to plan and supervise the construction of the locks on the Kentucky River, allowing better water transport for local products, including shipments of whiskey.  The couple would have one daughter, Irma, born in 1876.
How Labrot met James Graham, an established Frankfort businessman, is unknown, but by 1878 when they bought the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery they had gained recognition as Kentucky whiskey men.  Graham became the plant manager and Labrot was responsible for wholesale and retail sales.  They produced Old Oscar Pepper as their only brand.  

Insurance underwriter documents placed the Labrot & James plant nine miles southeast of Frankfort. They recorded that the distillery was built of stone with a metal or slate roof. The property included a granary with two corn cribs, plus four bonded warehouses, all stone with metal or slate roofs.  Warehouse No. 1 was 100 feet north of the still. Part of this warehouse was “free,” that is, not part of the whiskey in bonded storage.  Warehouse No. 2 B adjoined No. 1 A, located 100 feet NE of the still.  Warehouse No. 3 C was 104 ft south of the still and Warehouse No. 4 D was 285 feet south.

Meanwhile, James Pepper, who had suffered bankruptcy and lost the family distillery, got back on his feet.  In 1889, with a partner named Starkweather, he established a distillery near Lexington, in Fayette County, Kentucky.  Pepper designed the distillery and layout of equipment and was responsible for overseeing construction.  He called his operation the James E. Pepper Distilling Company. [See my post on him, September 2012.]  After his distillery was up and running, James apparently had second thoughts about ceding the Old Oscar Pepper name to Labrot and Graham.  He hauled them into federal court in Kentucky on the grounds that he was the “originator, inventor, and owner” of the name “Old Oscar Pepper” and its abbreviation “O.O.P.,” and that the owners of the Frankfort distillery were infringing on his trademark.  

Pepper cited evidence that he had branded his barrels with a distinct mark that proved his ownership.  His lawyers testified that the had used the same device on a smaller scale printed upon the letterheads, billheads, and other business items concerning his whiskey.  On Pepper’s behalf they contended that a similar mark being used by Labrot & Graham, shown below,  was a “wrongful and fraudulent design” to procure customers who were looking for the genuine article.  Old Oscar Pepper,  they contended, was only of James Pepper’s manufacture.  They sought an injunction and damages against Labrot & Graham.  

The Frankfort partners, in their answer to Pepper’s complaint, dismissed his claims to the brand, contending that their whiskey was the product of the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery founded by the Peppers in Woodford County.  Labrot & Graham could point out that the distillery had been sold to them “with all appurtenances and fixtures” and that their ownership gave them the right to make and market whiskey under the Old Oscar Pepper name. On the contrary, they contended, use of the brand for a whiskey “manufactured elsewhere, would be a fraud on the public….”

In their 1881 opinion on Pepper vs. Labrot the federal judges took seriously a statement made when James took over the distillery after wresting the facility from his mother, one in which he attributed the excellence of the whiskey to the water used (“a very superior spring”) and the quality of the grain grown on the property.  In extolling Old Oscar Pepper his distiller also had boasted:  “I use the same water, the same grain, and the same STILL.”  How then, the court asked, could Pepper now repudiate the importance of those attributes when he was distilling his whiskey twenty-five miles away from its origins?  

The court then asked whether Pepper should be permitted to use the Old Oscar Pepper mark to represent whiskey made by him elsewhere as the product of the distillery now owned by Labor & Graham.  The answer was “No.” Not only did the court dismiss Pepper’s complaint against the partners, it found that he had no right to use the brand name at all because “to do so would be to mislead the public by a false representation in respect to the place of the manufacture of his goods.”

As a result of this decision, Labrot & Graham was free to market vigorously the only brand they distilled:  “Old Oscar Pepper Hand Made Sour Mash Whiskey.”  To wholesale customers they sold it by the barrel, adopting a slightly different design for their barrel heads that included the silhouettes of three stills.  A photograph from that period shows government inspectors at the distillery testing sample barrels for their alcoholic content.  

After aging in the Labrot & Graham warehouses the barrels often were decanted into glass containers ranging in size from half pints and pints to quarts.  Bottles came in both clear and amber, as shown here.  Bearing minimal embossing, the Old Oscar Pepper and OOP label was sufficient identification that the consumer was getting the genuine article.

In 1900 James Graham died, leaving the full responsibility for management of the distillery to Leopold Labrot.  Despite loss of his valued partner, Labrot never broke stride.  Under the Frenchman’s leadership the distillery continued to make progress.  As shown in a news photo above the staff grew markedly.  Over the years as well, the distillery was upgraded and expanded.  The older structures were torn down to be replaced by buildings that were constructed largely of local stone, as shown below.

For more than a decade Labrot guided the fortunes of Old Oscar Pepper Distillery.  Striken with heart trouble as he entered his late sixties, he died in 1911.  The cause given on his death certificate was “pulmonary edema.”  With his widow, Louisa, and other family members mourning at his gravesite, Leopold was interred in Frankfort Cemetery.  His burial crypt is shown here.

Labrot’s death triggered a major reorganization of the company.  Among the new officers were two Chicago businessmen, D. K. Weiskopf of the Republic Distributing Company of Chicago, and Richard A. Baker, a cousin of Col. E. H. Taylor Jr. and the husband of Labrot’s daughter, Irma.  Baker, a Kentuckian, apparently was in charge of the day-to-day operations of the distillery, retaining the Labrot & Graham name.

The distillery was forced to close in 1918 with the coming of National Prohibition.  Its warehouses were emptied of stored whiskey and the stocks moved to federal concentration warehouses to prevent hijacking and pilferage.  Later the liquor was sold for medicinal purposes.  With Repeal, Baker rebuilt the distillery in 1935, operating once again as Labrot & Graham.  The facility was sold to Brown-Forman in 1940 for $75,000 but then lay idle for almost five decades until that company decided to refurbish the plant to bring it back into operation, specifically to produce a small batch bourbon known as Woodford Reserve.  Introduced into the market in 1996, this Kentucky bourbon has proved highly popular.

Today the distillery is counted as the oldest of the nine bourbon distilleries currently in operation in Kentucky, even though the site lay idle for several periods during the past 237 years of its history.  Founded by Elijah Pepper in 1780 and run by the Pepper family for almost 100 years, the distillery found an able successor in Leopold Labrot, who with Graham brought the facility and the brand successfully into the 20th Century and eventually to Brown-Foreman.



  1. Jack,

    This has been some of the best information about Leopold Labrot that I have found. I would love to get in touch with you as we are doing lots of research on the Labrot & Graham Distillery. Please feel free to correspond with the email I posted with.

    Thank you so much and look forward to hearing from you.

  2. Unknown: Happy to be of help on your research on Labrot & Graham. However, I did not get your email address with your comment. Mine is jack.sulllivan9@verizon.net. Email me there and I will have it.