When people think of Kentucky, bourbon and horse racing are usually two of the first things that come to mind.
Kentucky is the birthplace of bourbon. Currently, there are over 100 different bourbon and whiskey brands produced in the Bluegrass State. In fact, there are more bourbon barrels than people in Kentucky, according to bourbontrailtours.com.
Congress first recognized bourbon as a unique product in 1964. Federal law dictates that bourbon must be produced in the United States, contain at least 51% corn, and mature at least freshly charred oak barrels for at least two years.
Due to its history, the bourbon industry naturally plays a large role in the state’s tourism economy. A Kentucky Distillers Association study found that the industry generated more than 22,500 jobs with an annual payroll topping $1.23 billion. Additionally, that same study found that 2 million people visited statewide distilleries in 2021.
Tourists from around the world travel to Kentucky to visit the Bourbon Trail — a route that allows people to visit several distilleries. While on the trail, tourists can learn about the bourbon-making process, partake in tastings, and immerse themselves in the culture of bourbon production.
The idea of a bourbon trail rubbed off on many Northern Kentucky community leaders. Launched in 2018, the ‘B-Line’ is the region’s own self-guided bourbon tour. The B-Line centers around seven different local craft distilleries, nine bourbon-centric bars and nine restaurants.
The B-Line allows Northern Kentucky to differentiate itself as a tourist destination within the Greater Cincinnati area, and Kentucky as a whole. The region can now market itself as an area with it’s own unique bourbon culture and heritage separate from the rest of the state. Within the Greater Cincinnati region, it helps Northern Kentucky stand out as the primary place to go for spirits tourism.
In 2007, the United States Senate passed a resolution naming September as National Bourbon Heritage Month.
For National Bourbon Heritage Month, LINK nky toured three destinations along the B-Line to highlight the different ways tourists can get the most out of their Northern Kentucky bourbon experience, and how bourbon tourism has impacted their bottom line.
Revival Vintage Bottle Shop
Revival co-founder Brad Bonds is one of the world’s largest “dusty” spirits collectors.
Dusty’s are defined as vintage or discontinued spirits no longer in production. Essentially, those bottles have been “collecting dust,” either sitting behind a bar, packed away in storage, or chilling on a retail shelf for an extended time.
When Bonds and his business partner Shannon Smith, started Revival in 2020, he wanted his rare collection of bourbons and other spirits to be accessible to the masses, not just a select group of wealthy collectors or aficionados.
“I think vintage spirits and hard-to-find bourbon and alcohols just been put on a pedestal by Michelin-star restaurants and high-end bars and unfortunately, for the average guy and girl, you just can’t get in the game,” Bonds said.
Before entering the vintage spirits business, Bonds sold cars and cell phones. He decided to quit his sales job after the Kentucky Legislature passed House Bill 400, colloquially known as the “Bourbon Without Borders” law. The bill reinvigorated the state’s bourbon market. One aspect of the bill allowed collectors to sell vintage bottles for the first time. This revelation gave Bonds the confidence to resign from his 9-to-5 and commit to opening Revival.
“I literally wake up every single day and I’m just excited to be there,” Bonds said.
In essence, Revival is a museum filled with classic bottles and other spirit artifacts. There are bottles on the shelf from the World War I era. Other grail finds include ancient bottles of Stitzel-Weller and Pappy Van Winkle. Bonds estimates Revival has around a $1 million inventory.
Revival is in the business of selling memories. Want to drink a bottle of bourbon released during your birth year? Revival has it. Want to celebrate the life of a late grandparent by drinking a glass of their favorite discontinued bourbon? Revival most likely has that too.
“It has me feeling like Zelda,” Bonds said. “This is the final level. I feel like this is the final frontier with alcohol. It’s all the lost and forgotten stuff.”
Being part of the B-Line helps Revival elevate other parts of the Covington community such as nearby restaurants, hotels, and bars. From Bonds’ perspective, when Revival succeeds, so do other Covington businesses.
“We want our other B-Line members to be lifted up,” Bonds said. “We look at no one as competition.”
Three Spirits Tavern
If you or a loved one suffer from phasmophobia — the persistent fear of ghosts — then Three Spirits Tavern in Bellevue may not be your first choice.
But, if you’re feeling brave, Three Spirits co-founder Charlie Zimmerman can mix up an Old Fashioned to help ease your nerves. Before you know it, you and the ghosts that live in the building will be enjoying a drink together.
Founded in 2018 by Zimmerman and Leslie Blair, Three Spirits Tavern was named for the three outstanding spirits: bourbon, wine and beer, according to their website. Additionally, the owners believe the building to be haunted.
“Our goal is for you to get the bourbon on your palate, get you used to it so that you can then experience it in its native form,” Zimmerman said.
The Fairfield Avenue building was constructed in 1883 by Nicholas Funken — a Bellevue resident and coal broker. Zimmerman and Blair purchased the building from the family in 2017, then transformed the first floor from a living space into a bar.
When the building was undergoing renovations, Zimmerman admitted they, along with a group of contractors, heard voices, conversations and footsteps from unknown figures but were never able to identify them. While these stories certainly create intrigue, the Tavern’s most important spirits are the ones they mix into their specially crafted cocktails.
Being part of the B-Line, bourbon is one of their most popular spirits. For Zimmerman and Blair, bourbon allows Northern Kentucky to differentiate itself from the rest of Kentucky.
“For us, bourbon is a great thing,” Zimmerman said. “It allows us to engage with the community and allows other people from outside our community, being on the B-Line, to learn about Northern Kentucky its heritage, its roots to the distilling part of it, but also Kentucky.”
As a Bellevue native, Zimmerman has witnessed the reputation of the city, and Northern Kentucky as a whole, change over time. Oftentimes, Northern Kentucky can be seen as culturally different from both Cincinnati and the broader state of Kentucky. This puts Northern Kentucky on an island of sorts. Not quite Kentucky, not quite Cincinnati.
However, with the growing popularity of bourbon, Northern Kentucky’s own local industry has helped the region carve out its own identity. As business owners, Zimmerman and Blair have taken notice.
“You’re in Kentucky now,” he said. “No passport required. Come in here drink our bourbon. Enjoy our food, enjoy our culture, our history.”
Many people might know Pompilio’s as exclusively an Italian restaurant. Started in 1933, it’s one of Northern Kentucky’s oldest. The restaurant has stood the test of time, persevering throughout countless different eras of Newport’s history, like Prohibition and the city’s gangster period.
Many don’t realize that Pompilio’s is also one of the oldest continuously operating bars in Northern Kentucky. It, too, has a rich history with bourbon that dates back long before the restaurant’s founding.
“We were a bar first,” Pompilio’s partner Larry Geiger told LINK nky. The building’s bar was first installed in 1903, according to Geiger.
Colonel Pomp’s Tavern, Pompilio’s signature bar, is one of the most recent additions to the B-Line. Scattered throughout Pompilio’s are photographs, newspaper articles, old menus and other memorabilia dedicated to reminding customers of the restaurant’s extraordinary past.
Due to this history, Geiger and his business partners felt like applying for the B-Line was a natural choice for their business.
“We really thought we were a good fit for the B-Line because what we love about the B-Line, what they do for us is they showcase how great Northern Kentucky is,” Geiger said. “They showcase how great the restaurants, bars, food atmosphere, the drink scene is up here,” Geiger said.
From Geiger’s perspective, the restaurant’s history is one of their most important draw factors. Once they are in the door, the staff can introduce the customer to a variety of bourbons and other spirits they may not have expected.
“Just because we’ve been around a long time and we’ve got a rich history, when people come in here and they see the back bar and they see the varieties of bourbon throughout the state, we’re able to introduce them to stuff that they may have never seen before,” Geiger said.
Like other establishments on the B-Line, Geiger views it like a community. Word of mouth goes a long way, he said.
“We all have to help each other. Being in the restaurant businesses, you know, everybody’s family,” Geiger said.