Come find bourbon!”
While that phrase lacks the gravitas of “The British are coming” or “Remember the Alamo,” it’s impactful enough to lure armies of tourists to Kentucky.
Last year, more than 1 million visitors blazed Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail, a distance from north to south of 130 miles. Taking advantage of this, three enterprising tourism directors joined forces to connect their cities based on the twin pleasures of bourbon and food.
The brainchild of Julie Kirkpatrick, president and CEO of Northern Kentucky Tourism, the idea of a trifecta was embraced by tourism officials in Frankfort and Bardstown. The result: a campaign encouraging all to “come find bourbon.”
“I knew I wanted to take what we have done here in Covington with the B-Line (the northern terminus of the Bourbon Trail) and connect it to Bardstown, the Bourbon Capital of the World,” said Kirkpatrick. “Getting Frankfort, the home of Buffalo Trace, with its rich 200-year history, to join us was a bonus.”
On a recent three-day trip beginning in Covington and ending in Bardstown, I spent a day-and-a-half eating and drinking my way through each city, but you should feel free to linger as long as you want. You won’t be sorry.
Start in Covington, Ky.
Covington offered three unique bourbon tasting experiences.
In New Riff Distillery’s (newriff distilling.com) beautifully appointed tasting room with its brick walls, floor-to-ceiling windows and ornate chandeliers, I experienced their Barrel Proof Tasting. The tasting features five products, one of which is a bourbon straight from the barrel rather than poured from a bottle. In bourbon parlance, this is the equivalent of doing away with the middleman — in this case, the bottle. It’s a practice highly prized among bourbon aficionados.
The Barrel Proof Tasting, which also includes a tour of the warehouse and bottling plant and costs $25, is offered only several times a month, so it is essential to book in advance.
In complete contrast to the elegance of New Riff is the Quirky (and yes, that capital Q was intentional) Second Sight Spirits (secondsight spirits.com). A large Egyptian eye beckons you to the distillery, which at first glance could be mistaken for a replica, but it is, in fact, the real thing.
The stainless-steel pot still was bought off of Craigslist; the crystal ball condenser came from a dismantled streetlight, and the double boiler came from a company that manufactures timpani drums.
This might seem like an unconventional way to run a distillery, but partners Carus Waggoner and Rick Couch are anything but conventional. The men, both native Kentuckians, worked with Cirque de Soleil in Las Vegas before returning home and opening Second Sight.
At the bar where you can sample the fruits of their labor (rums, moonshine and the first legal bourbon in Kenton County since Prohibition), the entertainment continues in the form of seances and burlesque shows.
It’s safe to say there’s not another distillery in Kentucky like Second Sight.
Your opportunities for tasting in Covington don’t stop at the distilleries. Be sure to pop in at Revival Vintage Bottle Shop (revivalky.com), where you can sample bourbons older than either of the owners, 39-year-old Brad Bonds and 23-year-old Anthony Bley.
Specializing in vintages that date to the 1980s and earlier, you can walk in and try bourbons from their three shelves — the $5 to $10 shelf; the $15 to $25 shelf and the Platinum shelf at $35.
Bourbon and food are a natural pairing, and the Northern Kentucky area is becoming quite a mecca for good restaurants. Two of the best are Libby’s Southern Comfort (libbyssoutherncomfort.com) and Bouquet (bouquetrestaurant.com).
At the former, housed in what was once a grocery store, Southern food like your grandma made reigns supreme.
I don’t recall my grandma making deviled eggs with pork belly lardons and chives or Goetta hush puppies served with remoulade sauce and citrus honey cream, but I’m glad that at Libby’s, someone’s grandma did and they are both appetizer choices.
As an entree, try Chef Shawn’s pan-seared, skin-on boneless chicken thighs with caramelized almonds and sawmill gravy, served over andouille hash.
At Bouquet in the German- influenced Mainstrasse area, the mission is to embrace local and sustainable farming, and it shows in menu items such as pork belly and scallops with grit cake, sweet pepper relish, plum jam and chili oil, and Maple Leaf Farms duck with smoked carrots, wheatberries and carrot and celery root slaw.
On to Frankfort, Ky.
On the second day, I arrived in Kentucky’s capital city of Frankfort in time for lunch at Goodwood Brewing (goodwoodbrewing.com), a casual spot overlooking the Kentucky River (in warm weather, be sure to ask for a table on the riverside balcony).
This is the place to go for burgers and brews, but there are other tempting menu items. Appetizers include fried green tomatoes with panko breadcrumbs, goat cheese and charred scallion aioli, and brisket “tot-chos” with beer cheese queso, peppers, onion and pickled jalapeno.
As an option to the burger, try the Drunken Chicken with bourbon bacon jam, beer cheese, shredded iceberg lettuce and house pickles.
If you’re really hungry, entrees range from chicken and waffles to bourbon glazed salmon with asparagus and smoked dirty rice.
A hearty lunch will fuel you for an afternoon tasting at Buffalo Trace Distillery (buffalotracedistillery.com), a National Historic Landmark and the oldest continuously operating distillery (1858) in the state.
If you’re lucky, you’ll get Freddie Johnson as your tour and tasting guide. Freddie, the third generation in his family to work at Buffalo Trace, is regarded as something of a local treasure for his charm and impeccable knowledge of bourbon.
It doesn’t hurt that his philosophy is, “You only bring out the good stuff for people you enjoy being with.”
I must be on Freddie’s A-List because my tasting featured a triple distilled Wheatley vodka; bourbon samples from an 8-year-old Buffalo Trace barrel and a 10-year-old Eagle Rare barrel (“same recipe, but affected by where they are located in the warehouse,” says Freddie), a Colonel E.H. Taylor Small Batch bourbon, Bourbon Cream and to wrap it up, Freddie’s root beer, a combination of real cane sugar, oil of birch and Madagascar vanilla.
You know you have to be a star when you get one of their products named for you.
Following an afternoon at Buffalo Trace, I wanted to rest up before tackling my next culinary adventure. Serafini (serafinifrankfort.com) is Frankfort’s most famous fine dining establishment, with a combination of warm hospitality, ambiance (the Greek Revival-style Old State Capitol Building, built in 1830, is the view from the front window) and stellar Italian food.
For starters, try the grilled brie with fig preserves, and move on to a Steakhouse Wedge salad before choosing from a selection of eight pastas (I’m partial to the lasagna).
If you have room for an entree, I suggest the salmon with shaved Brussels sprouts and sweet potato risotto, cilantro and chili plum with sesame sauce.
Serafini also has an extensive bourbon list.
Before leaving Frankfort for the last leg of my trip, I stopped at B’s Bakery (Instagram: @bsbakeryfrankfortky) for a flaky croissant and a chat with Beth Carter, the eponymous B, who returned to her hometown after stints cooking for Taylor Swift and Ree Drummond, TV’s “The Pioneer Woman.”
Her bakery has been described by the Food Network as one of the Top 10 places in the U.S. having “the cutest food.”
Final stop: Bardstown, Ky.
Last stop was the unofficial Bourbon Capital of the World. With Jim Beam, Makers Mark, Heaven Hill and a slew of other distilleries, it’s almost impossible not to find bourbon in this town.
I have done my fair share of sipping here but had never been to Preservation Distillery (preservation distillery.com) before this visit, and that was my loss. This family-owned distillery is described on its website as “the first and only 100% pot distilled producer in Nelson County.”
To this I would add that it’s a beautifully situated hidden gem that you could easily overlook if you aren’t vigilant. That would be a shame because then you would miss an informative tasting with head distiller Matthew Jackson.
As Preservation has been open only four years, none of their spirits has been released yet, but Jackson says that rye will be released this year with bourbon a few years down the road.
I had a chance to taste several ryes, and if the bourbons are half as good, Preservation can take its place among bourbon’s big boys.
You won’t go hungry in Bardstown either. For breakfast, head to Fresh (freshcoffeebardstown.com), and take my word for it: The blueberry scones are the best you’ll find in the commonwealth.
The Bar at Willett (thebaratwillett.com) makes for an excellent lunch stop. Their egg salad sandwich is like no other I’ve ever had and the croque-monsieur gets raves as well.
The Rickhouse (therick house-bardstown.com) — named for the building where bourbon ages — has a dinner menu featuring dishes such as BBQ Bourbon Chicken, Bourbon Blueberry Salmon, Top of the Rick Hot Brown and a selection of steaks, all accompanied by sides such as green beans, scalloped potatoes and bourbon mushrooms.
There’s a new restaurant to choose from with the recent opening of The Kitchen Table (visitthekitchentable.com) at Jim Beam Distillery. Both the bar and restaurant focus on Kentucky-grown produce, meaning there will be plenty of country ham, catfish and pulled pork on the menu, along with cocktails featuring Beam’s best bourbons.
If you’re a fan of America’s only native spirit, these three cities won’t disappoint.
For more information on planning a trip, go to comefindbourbon.com.