Why Northern Kentucky has Reason to Celebrate Whiskey’s Renaissance

For years, the Kentucky Distillers Association has pitched the idea that Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail is to bourbon what Napa Valley is to wine.

To those who live here — the ones who consider Derby Day a national holiday — the trail is more than a trademarked tourism vehicle. It’s bragging rights to what the Bluegrass bottles best.

“There are three things that a Kentuckian knows implicitly,” says “Accidental Hedonist” food blogger Kate Hopkins. Horses, when the Wildcats and Cardinals play, and which bourbons are better than others.”

“Mostly, what those who live on the moonshine trail understand is how to have a good time,” says Hopkins, author of “99 Drams of Whiskey.”

That’s the spirit

Before bourbon aficionados started charting the tasting notes of the corn-based, barrel-aged spirit — noting its hints of caramel, vanilla, oak or spice — it was simply the working man’s drink

But the simple folk knew a good thing when they tasted it.

The rest of the country appears to be catching on to what Kentuckians have known all along.

Today, Kentucky’s bourbon business is booming. Bourbon now accounts for 70 percent of the $1.1 billion in spirits the United States exports each year. And 95 percent of it is made right here in Kentucky.

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail, created by the Kentucky Distillers Association in 1999, features six participating distilleries that give tourists a taste of how they craft the world’s finest bourbon. Officially, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve are on the tour, and they attracted more than 450,000 visitors last year. CNN International just named the tour one of the “10 Classic American Experiences.”

That’s not even counting all of the “unofficial” stops, where you can see vats swirling with mash or sample a shot of the hard stuff. (See more in Day Trippin’ sidebar.)

A new study by an economist at the University of Louisville concluded that the bourbon industry is helping carry the Commonwealth through the economic crisis by adding jobs, investing in distillery operations and attracting more tourists than ever.

The lure of bourbon in the last few years has proven to be recession-proof.

For all of those reasons, Northern Kentuckians are staking claim to the whiskey renaissance.

Northern Trailhead

Think the state’s bourbon heritage is all south of here? Think again. Too many business people want a piece of the action to let it slip away.

A bourbon bar is popping up in Covington’s MainStrasse Village. Restaurants including Newport’s Pompilio’s are offering bourbon tastings. And one of the area’s biggest beverage retailers, The Party Source in Bellevue, is building a modern bourbon and rye distillery and event center with a multi-million dollar price tag.

“Our distillery should open in spring 2013, so we are putting our own money where the popularity of Kentucky bourbon is,” says Jon Stiles, the store’s general manager.

The craft distillery and tasting bar will expand The Party Source into Newport and feature a rooftop pavilion for events. The focal point will be a 60-foot glass tower that houses the distillery’s copper and stainless steel still.

While it would look nothing like the quaint and rolling hillsides that surround Bluegrass distilleries in the Louisville and Central Kentucky areas, it would show a futuristic side of the industry.

“We would love to be part of The Bourbon Trail,” says Jay Erisman, The Party Source’s fine spirits manager. “It’s hard to say where The Bourbon Trail begins or ends. But I would bet that our soon-to-be fellow distillers would love if The Bourbon Trail would end in Newport at a distillery, where there just happens to be a gigantic store selling all of the bourbons.”

Doors Wide Open

Larry Geiger, owner and operator of Pompilio’s restaurant, is right behind him with his doors wide open.

“We said from the beginning we wanted to be the trailhead for the Kentucky Bourbon Trail,” Geiger says. “When people come to Northern Kentucky, we want to promote what’s one of Kentucky’s biggest-selling products and what Kentucky’s known for — you know, horse racing and bourbon.”

Nearby in Covington’s MainStrasse Village, the trend is materializing in the new Old Kentucky Bourbon bar. Local mixologist Molly Wellmann and one of her partners from Japp’s in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood say the place is dedicated to American whiskeys.

You might even get a taste of bourbon the next time you go out to eat. Local chefs are using it to marinate steaks and flavor soups and salad dressings.

“You’d be surprised what a splash of bourbon can add to a dish,” says David Dominé, a Louisville-based writer and author of the cookbook “Splash of Bourbon:
Kentucky’s Spirit.”

An art and a science

Much of the next phase of Kentucky’s bourbon story is experimental.

That’s obvious in Drew Mayville’s laboratory at Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, where researchers test everything from the chemical balance to the appearance and scent of what comes out of each barrel.

Instead of beakers,
a row of tasting glasses sits in front of Mayville as he examines the experiment at hand.

“The first thing you do is smell,” Mayville says. He also has the palate to appreciate it.

“Every master distiller puts his mark on his bourbon,” says Theresa Dowell Blackinton, author of “Louisville & the Bourbon Trail.” “People like the tradition behind bourbon and the care that goes into its production. And there’s the simple fact that it tastes good — straight, on the rocks, or in a cocktail.”

Mayville is helping spirits consultants like Erisman at The Party Source develop experimental whiskeys in private barrels to try and to sell.

“We want to make whiskey very much with a nod to the past but also improving on what they did then and sometimes improving on what they do now,” Erisman says. That explains the recent explosion of micro-distilleries, says Kate Hopkins, who traveled across Kentucky and the world researching “99 Drams,” what’s been described as a humorous “boozy travelogue.”

What she is serious about is the idea that bourbon’s popularity has a backstory.

Big distilleries may market their brands all over the world just as small distilleries focus on the craft and imply that the big guys are making less than perfect drinks.

Together, they’re helping define bourbon as, not just a classic drink, she says, but one of quality that everyone can afford.

As the state looks for ways to attract more business and travelers, that’s a trail that’s bound to gain more followers. ■