The dive bar at the heart of Lexington’s hot downtown entertainment district

Story Matt Wickstrom, LexGo
Photos by Matt Goins

Patrons sat at the bar, which was the former break room for distillery employees, on a weekday afternoon at The Break Room at the Pepper Distillery. Photo by Matt Goins

LEXINGTON, Ky. — A former wash and break room for workers of the original James E. Pepper Distillery continues to offer workers a getaway from the stresses of the workplace nearly a century after being built, albeit in a different fashion.

Chasing after his itch to pursue a new adventure, Jonny Cox, who also co-owns the Sidebar restaurant downtown, began searching in 2014 for a space to open a new . Cox was tipped off by friend Tony Higdon, who has just moved his business Iron Horse Forge to the Manchester Street campus a couple of years earlier, about a small building, constructed in 1920, in the shadow of the then-abandoned James E. Pepper Distillery. After visiting the space Cox immediately doubled down and purchased it.

Patrons socialized outside The Break Room at the Pepper Distillery. The bar has kept its dive feel even though it is in the middle of one of the city’s white-hot entertainment districts. Photo by Matt Goins

With prior experience in construction work, Cox was able to call on a group of friends to work on renovating the space, which included building a new front entrance and back deck overlooking Town Branchalong with installing a new roof and plumbing system. The Break Room at Pepper officially opened for business on Dec. 26, 2014. To recognize those that helped to bring new life to the building, nameplates with the names of those who lent a hand line the edge of the Break Room’s bar. The bar’s top was from a tree that once grew in front of the bar.

At the time of opening the only neighbor they had in their corridor of the yet-to-blossom District was Ethereal Brewing, which had opened less than a week before. Cox recalls many people were perplexed by his decision to open a bar in an undeveloped area of town, but to him the opportunity was one he couldn’t pass up.

“People told me that this was the weirdest thing that we could’ve done, opening a bar down here,” Cox said. “They said nobody will come down here.”

However, Cox’s vision was validated as more businesses began to move in to what has become one of the most trendy spots in Lexington today.

Guests can enjoy views of Town Branch Creek from the patio at The Break Room at the Pepper Distillery. Photo by Matt Goins

Featuring a rustic dive bar feel, the Break Room offers up an inviting outdoor atmosphere that greets patrons with a patio and firepit along with a secluded deck in back overlooking the creek. Parking meters from the now-defunct Buster’s Billiards and Backroom sit out front as receptacles to donate to local Lexington artists. There’s also a mural from Chicago-based artist Left Handed Wave, who teamed with local purveyors PRHBTN for the project.

Inside, the bar serves up staple beers and cocktails, with the highlight of their offerings being beer and shot combos, all priced at a modest $7. Topping the combos is “Best Friends Forever,” a pairing of Pabst Blue Ribbon and a shot of Jameson Irish Whiskey. The bar is managed by Stephanie Quinn, a former server and bartender at Sidebar with nearly a decade of experience in the service industry.

“Being one of the first businesses down here, it’s been fun to watch the area grow as more businesses move in and awareness of what the Distillery District has to offer continues to spread,” said Quinn. “We look forward to observing the District’s continued transformation with Town Branch Park and the extended trail still to come.”

IF YOU GO: Break Room at Pepper

What: Distillery District dive bar with staple drinks and beer/shot combos

Where: 1178 Manchester St.

Hours: Monday 4-10 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday 4 p.m. to 12 a.m., Friday and Saturday 12 p.m. to 12 a.m., and Sunday 12 p.m. to 10 p.m.


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