Northern Kentucky Has a Thirst for Innovation
The Northern Kentucky region's craft beverage scene is rising to new levels.
Bourbon is big business in Kentucky. According to a 2021 report commissioned by the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, the industry contributes $8.9 billion annually to the state’s economy and employs 22,500 workers. The association says 95% of the world’s bourbon is crafted in the Bluegrass State. A pro tip for those exploring this legendary craft beverage scene: Don’t overlook Northern Kentucky.
Old Fashioned vs. Newfangled
One distillery making its mark is Newport’s New Riff Distilling. Founded in 2014, it’s one of the region’s largest producers.
“Northern Kentucky has as good a claim as any to the origin of bourbon from the early 19th century, when barrels of whiskey were shipped north to the Ohio River ports and went out to the world,” says co-founder Jay Erisman.
New Riff carries on that tradition, thanks partly to its location on the river and just off Interstate 471.
“A really good golfer could hit a ball into Ohio from our roof deck,” says Erisman, “So, that is helpful for the tourism aspect of the current Northern Kentucky whiskey scene.”
The distillery has also received critical acclaim; in 2019, its entire portfolio was awarded double gold medals at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, which helped put Northern Kentucky whiskey on the map, Erisman says.
New Riff is now expanding its production facilities. In January 2022, it added three new 5,600-gallon fermenters to its existing six, which increased production capacity to 12,000 barrels per year. That summer, it broke ground on a 55,000-square-foot warehouse in nearby Silver Grove that can house over 40,000 barrels of aging whiskey — with room for future expansion. That project, says Erisman, will be complete in summer 2023.
Boone County Distilling Co. in Florence is another large regional producer in expansion mode. In 2021, it opened a 5,000-square-foot event center that includes a barrel room, patio, ballroom and full bar. The following year, it launched Canvus, a line of canned, ready-to-drink cocktails that includes flavors like bourbon lemon spice, raspberry lemonade and bourbon mule.
Smaller distilling and brewing operations also bring creativity and charm to the area’s craft beverage scene, along with a healthy helping of tradition.
Sparta’s Neeley Family Distillery officially launched in 2015, but it turns out whiskey, moonshine and absinthe based on family recipes dating back to the 1700s when James Neeley first built an illegal still and began making his own alcohol. There’s also Covington’s Wenzel Whiskey, where imbibers can create their own custom-blended whiskey and Augusta Distillery in the town of the same name produces high-end bottles suitable for collecting.
A relatively recent arrival to the scene, Newport’s Pensive Distilling Co., opened in 2021 and is named after the 1944 Kentucky Derby winner and located inside a former speakeasy, says General Manager Sami Biddle.
The space’s vibe harkens back to the days of Prohibition when Newport was “the first Vegas,” says Biddle, “known for bootlegging and brothels.” A pot still sits front and center in the distillery’s tasting room. It’s not a decorative still, either; it’s in use on days the distillery is closed to the public.
“Northern Kentucky has as good a claim as any to the origin of bourbon from the early 19th century, when barrels of whiskey were shipped north to the Ohio River ports and went out to the world.”
Jay Erisman, New Riff Distilling
Ludlow’s Second Sight Spirits makes a smoked cherry rum and hazelnut liqueur in addition to more traditional rum and bourbon; it was still handmade by the distillery’s founders, who are former engineers and designers for lavish Cirque du Soleil productions.
Surprisingly, Second Sight isn’t the only circus-inspired beverage producer in the historic river town of Ludlow. Bircus Brewing Co. was founded by Paul Hallinan Miller, previously a clown with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. After running away from the Greatest Show on Earth, he founded Circus Mojo in his home state and began performing out of Ludlow Theatre. After five years of selling other breweries’ beer at shows, Miller decided to make his own brews.
“You don’t make any money selling other people’s beer, but you can’t do events without beer,” he says. The result was Bircus: a taproom in the lobby of the historic theater, a brewery in the back room and events from circus performances (which bring in performers from across the globe) to pickleball to wrestling in the theater.
“How can we do things in a way that is productive and different?” says Miller.
The same could be said about all the innovative minds behind Northern Kentucky’s craft beverage scene.
Want to learn more about living and working in the Northern Kentucky region? Check out the latest edition of Livability Northern Kentucky.