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  • Liza Weisstuch

Monster Mash

As new bourbon distilleries pop up across the USA, the region along the Ohio River remains an essential destination for spirits tourism, writes Liza Weisstuch.
Vintage bourbon bottles, nicknamed “dusties”, displayed for sale at Revival Vintage Bottle Shop in Covington, Kentucky. Photography by Luke Sharrett.

When he gives tours of Neeley Family Distillery, Royce Neeley, the co-owner and an 11th-generation distiller, starts by delivering a few chapters of his salacious family history: moonshine! Bootleggers! Car chases through the Appalachian hills!

On a Monday in May, he was pointing out his wayward ancestors in photographs on a gallery-like wall when a man with a short white beard in a bucket hat shuffled in. His name was Earl Sizemore, and he introduced himself as Neeley’s maternal grandfather. Sizemore used to buy moonshine, he said, from one of Neeley’s paternal great-grandfathers, who appeared in one of the photographs as a slight man perched under a giant oak tree.

In another photograph was a crude distilling apparatus: two barrels connected by pipework, with a copper coil rigged up inside one of them. “I drank off that still,” said the 79-year-old Sizemore, known as Pawpaw. (The original contraption, which Neeley called a feat of “hillbilly engineering”, was in the room, too.)

Bourbon ages inside white-oak barrels at Boone County Distilling Co in Florence, Kentucky. Photography by Luke Sharrett.

“If anyone ever told me they’d be making whiskey here legally today,” Sizemore added, “I would’ve called them a liar.”

The living-museum quality of Neeley Family Distillery isn’t intentional so much as unavoidable. Royce Neeley is the latest — and first legal — distiller in his lineage. His facility, which he co-owns with his father, is thoroughly modern, marking the long-working family’s legitimate arrival in the state’s bourbon industry. When I tasted his bourbon, which clocked in at a muscular 108.4 proof (or 54.2 per cent alcohol by volume), he pointed out tiny specs of char, or burned oak, floating in the bottle — an indication, he explained, that the spirit isn’t chill-filtered, a process that removes tiny particles and chemical compounds from the spirit before bottling.

The existence of places like Neeley Family Distillery points to an entrenched history in Northern Kentucky, stretching along the Ohio River, where distilling flourished for decades, only to meet its demise during Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933.

“When you go back to the very end of the 18th century and early 19th century, all the action was on the Ohio River,” said Chuck Cowdery, journalist and author of “Bourbon, Straight”, which traces the history of American whiskey-making.

“But you can’t talk about Northern Kentucky by itself,” he said.

At that time, European immigrants made small amounts of corn whiskey at farm distilleries in Kentucky and sent it across the river to Cincinnati, where big distilleries known as rectifiers redistilled the harsh spirit and blended it to make it more palatable.

Today, spirits tourism is big business, especially in Kentucky. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail, established in 1999 by the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, maps an itinerary that connects 18 historical distilleries within a 56-kilometre radius. Its success inspired the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour, which was introduced in 2012 and highlights 23 smaller distilleries, most of which range in age from two to 14 years, and one of which is older than 80 years. According to the KDA, more than 1.5 million tours were given at distilleries on the KBT and its Craft Tour arm in 2021, indicative of a strong recovery from the attendance record of 1.7 million set in 2019.

According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, there are more than 2,300 distilleries nationwide today, up from 50 in 2005. In June, the council launched Destination Distillery, a website that catalogues 43 distillery trails from Delaware to Utah. But as distilleries pop up in new places, Northern Kentucky remains a particularly exciting destination since it honours a bourbon heritage in a pocket of America with a rich distilling history — one that isn’t as well known as those in other parts of Kentucky and Tennessee.

That’s changing now. The B-Line, a self-guided Northern Kentucky bourbon trail that consists of five distilleries, eight bars and six restaurants, was introduced in 2018. Participants can get a digital “passport” stamped at all of the sites and, after submitting it, can receive bourbon paraphernalia as a reward.

This is a good time to note that bourbon is a particular style of whiskey. Legislation passed in 1964 proclaimed it a “distinct product of the United States”. By law, bourbon must contain at least 51 per cent corn in its mash bill, or grain recipe, be aged in new charred-oak casks and be made in the USA. There is no requirement that it be produced in Kentucky, but about 95 per cent of it is. As further indication of how deeply woven it is in American culture and history, Congress passed a resolution in 2007 that established September as National Bourbon Heritage Month. (It was sponsored by then-Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky.)

When I visited the region recently, intent on visiting the five distilleries included on The B-Line’s list, I chose Covington, Kentucky, as my home base. The city has a lively centre and is within walking distance of seven B-Line bars and restaurants. It takes 25 minutes to walk to Cincinnati over the John A Roebling Suspension Bridge, which the celebrated engineer designed before his more famous Brooklyn Bridge. And it takes less than 15 minutes to drive to New Riff Distilling in Newport, Kentucky.

Located on a retail strip, New Riff inspired a double-take as I approached. It’s a sleek building of glass, steel and stonework with a 18-metre-tall copper still enclosed in a glass tower. It shares a car park with Party Source, one of the largest bottle shops in the US, which was founded by Ken Lewis in 1993.

Anthony Bley serves guests at Revival bottle shop. Photography by Luke Sharrett.

In 2014, Lewis built the distillery and co-founded the business with Jay Erisman, his fine-spirits manager of 12 years, who developed the whiskeys.

New Riff’s products stand out because Erisman is quite fanatical about rye, a grain that, when included in a bourbon mash, or grain mix, lends the final spirit a peppery flex and mitigates the sweetness that comes from the corn. (Straight rye whiskey, which must be at least 51 per cent rye grain by law, doubles down on the spicy black-pepper snap.)

“Part of the purpose of using rye in bourbon is to provide flavour,” Erisman said. “It can give you a powerful, spicy, intense bourbon experience, different from bourbons that are sweet, honeyed, vanilla-laden.”

We were standing in an industrial room with metal-grate floors and exposed pipes. Grain mixtures bubbled away in several of the nine 21-kilolitre steel tanks as yeast feasted on the sugars in the mix, converting it to alcohol. The feeding frenzy produces wash, essentially beer, which is then distilled into a clear spirit and sent to rest in new charred-oak casks, where the wood imbues it with all of its colour and, most experts agree, a majority of its flavour.

The room looks like a factory, but the smell reminded me of a cosy bakery with sourdough loaves in the oven.

In a vast window-walled bar space, Grover Arnold, a genial brand ambassador, offered lyrical commentary as he guided me through a tasting. The whiskey offers “unique innuendos built by the barrel”, he said. Another delivers “more love on midpalate”. A single-barrel bourbon’s peppery spice “emotes off the palate”. Its finish is “a tight hug”.

The kind of bourbons that Erisman and Arnold riff on are abundant a kilometre-and-a-half away at Prohibition Bourbon Bar, a Newport den set in a back room of a restaurant. Shelves behind the bar are packed with about 1,200 bottles of bourbon and hundreds more occupy space on the bar and other surfaces. Still, they represent only a fraction of the 6,400 different bourbons that Peter Newberry, the owner, claims as his inventory.

Newberry poured bourbon from bottles decorative enough to be mistaken for luxury fragrance vessels and shared stories of how legendary gangsters ran bootlegging rings through Newport. (It’s widely accepted that Newport provided the blueprint for another vice-filled city, Las Vegas.)

While Prohibition impresses with its vast array of options, Revival Vintage Bottle Shop, three kilometres away, is remarkable for its focus on age. I parked myself on a stool at the tasting bar at this bottle shop and half-wondered if I’d tumbled down a vortex to the late ’70s. Thanks to the 2018 Vintage Spirits Law, legislation unique to Kentucky, bars and shops can sell spirits they purchase from individuals’ collections otherwise not available through wholesalers. It’s not uncommon to find a 60-year-old bourbon and other “dusties” — a general term collectors use to refer to rare old bottles — among the inventory of up to 4,000 bottles. And Brad Bonds, a co-owner and curator, doesn’t believe they should be shelved for posterity. “I think the best spirits have already been made, and everyone should have a chance to try them,” he said. “They were made to be drunk.”

“Everything was different back in the day,” he said. “Think about Kentucky: they were more hands-on. They were making smaller batches with better organic ingredients, using older wood for the barrels. There were inconsistencies — and that’s what makes it interesting.”

Bonds has more than 100 bottles opened on any given day and sells 15ml pours. The price to taste these rare time capsules is about twice what you’d spend for a martini at an upscale restaurant: for $US35 ($AU53), I tried Old Grand-Dad Bourbon bottled in 1954, a dense, silky measure of history with high-definition vanilla notes, as if fossilised by time.

The existence of places like Neeley Family Distillery points to a storied history of whiskey-making in Northern Kentucky. Photography by Luke Sharrett.

But even Revival’s oldest bourbons were distilled decades after Peter Pogue’s great-great-grandfather acquired a distillery on the Ohio River and gave it his family name in 1876. It was sold after Prohibition. But when Pogue, fresh out of law school in 1989, was given hand-scribbled recipes from 1907, he was determined to revive the company. Today, the new (and smaller) Old Pogue Distillery, opened in 2012, sits on ancestral land along the Ohio River, in Maysville, Kentucky. It’s about 100 kilometres southeast of Covington. Driving down Kentucky Route 9, I passed green rolling hills that seemed to go on forever, putting me squarely in the mindset of crossing the Scottish Highlands.

To get to the distillery, a modest cottage-like building, from the car park, I crossed a recently reconstructed limestone footbridge. The bridge is mere paces from a handsome Greek Revival home that was occupied by Pogues for generations.

In the living room, old-timey images of the distillery festooned the walls, antique Pogue bottles were displayed in cabinets and a guide poured tastes of bourbons and ryes made using the century-old recipes.

Pogue was in a rocking chair on the porch with two cousins when I left. He invited me to sit and told me how his great-grandfather would perch himself here and watch boats loaded with barrels of whiskey float past. Their destination: New Orleans. Maysville, he explained, was part of Bourbon County when the land belonged to Virginia. It was home to a major shipping port. One widely held theory is that bourbon came to be called “bourbon” because the barrels were stamped with the county name, a tribute to a French royal family.

The fourth distillery I visited was founded in 2015, but it’s hardly avant-garde. Boone County Distilling Co is a tribute to Petersburg Distillery. Established in 1833, Petersburg became Kentucky’s biggest distillery 50 years later, turning out a million barrels of bourbon annually. Rob, my guide, who had a tattoo of a tree inching up his arm, related this to me and explained the dramatic events that led to the distillery’s downfall in 1910. The founders’ research at Boone County’s library revealed treasures like the diary of Lewis Loder, a clerk at Petersburg for 30 years, whose anecdotes and wisdom are shared on plaques throughout the distillery.

Rob then led me to the bar and instructed me on the “Kentucky chew”, a tasting technique that involves rolling the bourbon around in your mouth and luxuriating in its rich texture.

If Old Pogue is a classical composition, like a symphony that telegraphs the gravitas of history, and New Riff is a pop song, embracing nostalgia and tradition to create something new, then Second Sight Spirits, with its DIY aesthetic and rebellious attitude, is the punk album of the bunch. The distillery and lounge are on the ground floor of a brick building. Long burgundy drapes in the windows set the moody tone of the place. Much of the vintage circus-themed decor was scored on eBay and Craigslist by the distillery’s co-owners, Carus Waggoner, an industrial designer, and Rick Couch, a mechanical engineer. Even the still was built with various internet-sourced parts. (The two friends worked together in the props department for Cirque du Soleil productions in Las Vegas; the name they chose is a nod to fortune tellers.)

“We’re not related to any cool dead people,” Waggoner said as he poured me samples of three of Second Sight’s spirits: Oak Eye Bourbon, a hazelnut liqueur and a spiced rum.

“We’re looking toward the future.”

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our sixth edition, Page 98 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “Monster Mash”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.

© The New York Times


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