USA: On the bourbon whiskey trail in Kentucky
Guests can try a diverse range of old and new tipples on their journey
Kentucky’s burgeoning bourbon scene offers clients a new taste of the old US, says Qin Xie
Let’s taste something special,” Brad Bonds says as he deftly pours out a line-up of snifters from a bottle of 1950s Old Grand-Dad. The vintage bourbon is all sweetcorn and caramel on the nose, before gliding down the throat with a blanket of butterscotch warmth.
That heat that hits straight to the bottom of my stomach on the finish? It’s the “Kentucky hug”, explains Bonds. A tall and affable man, ‘Dusty’, as he calls himself, is a collector of rare and vintage spirits ranging from 1920s absinthe to an 1893 Boone’s Knoll bourbon that predates prohibition, the period between 1920 and 1933 when alcohol was banned in the US, except as medicine.
But rather than storing them as museum pieces, the bottles are generously opened and liberally poured at Revival, the tasting and bottle shop in Covington that he co-owns. This North Kentucky gem is no snooty establishment for connoisseurs.
A hundred or more prized bottles line the walls, but prices start from just $5 for a taster – and you can try some pre-prohibition era tipples for a fraction of the bottle price. To say it’s a candy shop for curious palates such as mine would be an understatement. It’s little wonder it has become an essential stop on any bourbon trail.
Surge in popularity
Revival is actually quite an apt description for the bourbon industry in Kentucky. This corn-based American whiskey has seen a surge in popularity in recent years, with heritage distillers such as Buffalo Trace struggling to keep up with demand.
Part of it is down to the production process – bourbon must legally be aged for at least two years in a new oak barrel, with more premium ‘bottled in bond’ labels resting for at least four years in government-designated warehouses.
While young bourbon works in cocktails such as mint julep, if you want a spirit that you can sip neat, you need to blend newer barrels with decades -old ones – and the latter are in short supply. Fortunately for fans of this amber-hued spirit, bourbon start-ups are launching all the time.
The signature cheerwine bourbon slush is unforgettable
And for novices, there are plenty of tourist-friendly experiences to wet your whistle. In Covington, Kentucky’s final frontier before you cross the river into Cincinnati, Ohio, a buzzy bourbon scene has developed into a thirst-quenching trail known as The B-Line.
On the map are neighbourhood favourites such as Libby’s Southern Comfort, where fried chicken and hearty bologna sandwiches vie for attention, and the signature cheerwine bourbon slush is unforgettable, provided you don’t have more than two.
It also sprawls into neighbouring cities. In Burlington, there’s Tousey House Tavern, where you might be ordering a salad for brunch but there’s zero judgement if you ask for another old fashioned.
Or head to Newport, where you can go on a gangster-themed walking tour – previously run by the mob, this was the original ‘sin city’ – before calming your nerves at the nearby New Riff distillery.
Selling out quickly
Fresh for 2022 is Wenzel Whiskey, which has just opened its doors in a former pickle factory, marking the first time bourbon has been made in Covington since prohibition.
They ‘rectify’ bourbon by sourcing barrels from other producers and creating their own blends, rather than distilling spirits from scratch, and the result has been so popular that bottles are selling out as fast as they can make it.
At its blending experiences, Wenzel offers visitors the chance to try their hand at rectifying. They get to smell, taste and learn about whiskey in a whole new way – but it’s not as easy as you might think.
Smell, taste and learn about whiskey in a whole new way
With a flight of four barrel-strength spirits, I managed to create something that was a delicious blend of caramel and butterscotch on the nose – exactly what I might like to drink – but it was hard not to grimace at the bitterness when I tasted it.
It’s an experience that gave me a whole new appreciation for the craft that goes into these spirits. Even Dusty’s low-key boutique, with its plain cream walls and dark wood-panelled bar, is getting an upgrade of sorts – he’s opening up a new drinking den at North by Hotel Covington, a 53-suite expansion of a luxury bolthole in the heart of the city that launches at the end of this year.
There will be space for more bottles, which means more opportunities to taste something special. Knowing Dusty, though, that generosity of spirit is one thing that isn’t going to change.
Need to know
❂ The nearest airport to Covington is in Cincinnati, Ohio. There are flights from the UK via New York, Austin or Dallas, with a total journey time of about 12 hours.
❂ It’s easy to do a twin-centre city break with Cincinnati – but taxes are lower on the Kentucky side, so the hotels are often more affordable.
❂ September is the best time to visit, as lots of festivals and events take place during the annual National Bourbon Heritage Month.
❂ There’s no need to hire a car if you’re staying in Covington and Cincinnati, as both are walkable. However, most distilleries are located around Louisville and Bardstown, about a 90-minute drive from Covington. Buffalo Trace and Bardstown Bourbon Company operate great tours.
America As You Like It offers the 14-night Bourbon, Bluegrass, Elvis and the Blues tour, beginning in Covington, from £2,095, including flights, accommodation and car hire. The price is based on departures in September and October 2023.
PICTURES: Clay Cook; Drawn To The Image