Kentucky has a new amber triangle: Three cities, one trek with great food and bourbon

·8 min read

“Come Find Bourbon!”

While that phrase lacks the gravitas of “The British are coming” or “Remember the Alamo,” it has had enough impact to lure armies of tourists to the commonwealth.

Last year, more than one million visitors blazed the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Taking advantage of the interest, 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 & CEO of Northern Kentucky Tourism, the idea of a trifecta was embraced by Robin Antenucci, Frankfort Tourism Commission executive director, and Samantha Brady, executive director of Bardstown Tourism. The result – Come Find Bourbon, a web site featuring the communities and what they have to offer.

“I knew I wanted to take what we have done here with the B-Line (Northern Kentucky’s bourbon trail) and connect it to the Bourbon Capital of the World,” says Kirkpatrick. “Getting Frankfort, the home of Buffalo Trace, with its rich 200-year history, to join us was a bonus,” she added.

I became one of the Come Find Bourbon trailblazers, 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 the cities, but feel free to linger in each as long as you want. You won’t be sorry.

For more information and help planning your trip, go to comefindbourbon.com.

Starting in Covington

Covington offered three unique bourbon tasting experiences.

In New Riff’s beautiful 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.

The Barrel Proof Tasting, which also includes a tour of the warehouse and bottling plant and costs $25, is only offered 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 Distillery. A large Egyptian eye beckons you to the distillery which at first glance could be mistaken for a replica, but is in fact, the real thing.

Second Sight Spirits in Covington offers a truly unique distillery tour.
Second Sight Spirits in Covington offers a truly unique distillery tour.

The stainless-steel pot still was bought off of Craig’s List; the crystal ball condenser came from a dismantled streetlight, and they bought the double boiler from a company that manufactures timpani drums.

This might not be as surprising as it sounds when you learn that partners Carus Waggoner and Rick Couch, both native Kentuckians, worked with Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas before returning home.

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.

Be sure to stop in at Revival Vintage Spirits where you can sample bourbons older than either of the owners, 39-year-old Brad Bonds and 23-year-old Anthony Bley.

Revival Spirits in Covington
Revival Spirits in Covington

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 and Bouquet.

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.

Shrimp and Grits at Libby’s Southern Comfort in Covington
Shrimp and Grits at Libby’s Southern Comfort in Covington

As an entrée, 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 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

On the second day, I arrived in Frankfort in time for lunch at Goodwood Brewing, 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 bread crumbs, 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 iceburg lettuce and house pickles.

Shrimp & Grits at Goodwood Frankfort.
Shrimp & Grits at Goodwood Frankfort.

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, a National Historic Landmark and the oldest continuously operating distillery (since 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, has the philosophy “you only bring out the good stuff for people you enjoy being with.”

Freddie Johnson is a third-generation employee of the distillery in Frankfort now known as Buffalo Trace. He is the VIP tour leader and was honored by the VisitLEX with the Lexington Hospitality Award for his efforts to welcome visitors to the region.
Freddie Johnson is a third-generation employee of the distillery in Frankfort now known as Buffalo Trace. He is the VIP tour leader and was honored by the VisitLEX with the Lexington Hospitality Award for his efforts to welcome visitors to the region.

I must be on Freddie’s A-List because my tasting featured a triple distilled Wheatley vodka; bourbon samples from an eight-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 distillery treasure 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 is Frankfort’s most famous fine dining establishment, with a combination of warm hospitality, ambiance (the Old State Capitol Building 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.)

Italian specialties on the menu at Serafini include classic Pasta Bolognese.
Italian specialties on the menu at Serafini include classic Pasta Bolognese.

If you have room for an entrée, I suggest the salmon with shaved Brussels 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 for a flaky croissant, but the cheese scone, blackberry cream cheese muffin and bacon doughnut were equally tempting.

Final Stop – Bardstown

Last stop was the unofficial Bourbon Capital of the World. With Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Heaven Hill and a slew of other distilleries, it’s almost impossible to not find bourbon in this town.

I have done my fair share of sipping here, but had never been to Preservation Distillery before this visit and that was my loss. This family-owned distillery is described on its website as “the first and only 100 percent pot distilled producer in Nelson County.”

To this, I would like to add, a beautifully situated hidden gem that you could easily miss if you aren’t vigilant. That would be a shame because then you would miss an informative tasting with head distiller Matthew Jackson.

Preservation Distillery in Bardstown is small but charming.
Preservation Distillery in Bardstown is small but charming.

As Preservation has only been open four years, none of their spirits have been released yet, but Jackson says that a rye will be released next year with a bourbon a few years after.

I had a chance to taste several ryes and a bourbon and am anxiously awaiting their release.

You won’t go hungry in Bardstown either. For breakfast, head to Fresh, and take my word for it, the blueberry scones are the best you’ll find in the commonwealth.

Fresh in Bardstown has Blueberry Scones and other breakfast options.
Fresh in Bardstown has Blueberry Scones and other breakfast options.
Fresh’s Biscuit with Egg, Cheese and Bacon
Fresh’s Biscuit with Egg, Cheese and Bacon

The Bar at Willett 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 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.

Explore the bourbon and dining options in Covington, Frankfort and Bardstown, including The Bar at Willett, where you can get craft cocktails and a great lunch.
Explore the bourbon and dining options in Covington, Frankfort and Bardstown, including The Bar at Willett, where you can get craft cocktails and a great lunch.

There’s a new restaurant to choose from with the recent opening of the 115-seat Kitchen Table at the Jim Beam Distillery. Both the bar and restaurant will focus on Kentucky grown produce, meaning there will be plenty of country ham, catfish and pulled pork on the menu. The restaurant has indoor and outdoor seating overlooking the distillery grounds.

Come Find Bourbon. In these three cities it won’t be hard.