Of Bourbon Bars & Distilleries in Northern Kentucky

March 22, 2022

For as much as we’ve explored Cincinnati, we haven’t spent as much time south of the river in Northern Kentucky. Back in December, the folks from the Northern Kentucky CVB kindly hosted us for a couple nights, giving us a chance to really delve into the small towns – Covington, Newport, Bellevue, Ludlow – that are dotted with historic buildings and loaded with great food and drink.

Fun fact: Covington itself is home to a huge number of bourbon bars. In The Bourbon Review‘s 2021 feature of America’s Best Bourbon Bars, Covington had as many on the list as New York City, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. – combined!

We were put up in the gorgeous Hotel Covington, a renovated property that sits in the historic Coppin’s Department Store. The central location is within easy walking and driving distance to many of the city’s attractions.

In addition to the gorgeous, high-ceilinged rooms, Hotel Covington has brightly lit common areas that include the in-house Coppin’s Restaurant & Bar, patio space, and a nifty little coffee bar. The barista Brandon was the very model of hospitality; in addition to making great coffee, he provided a warm welcome and loads of advice on restaurants and bars to visit.

After settling in, our first stop was New Riff Distilling over in Newport. The distillery was founded in 2014 by Ken Lewis, the original owner of the Party Source next door. He created the distillery to build a “new riff on an old tradition,” with a slate of bourbon, rye whiskey, gin, and other products.

Our tour was led by the very knowledgeable Grover, who walked our small group around the bubbling vats of mash, near their water-chilling system, and in the storage areas. New Riff actually draws the water for chilling up out of the ground around them.

Following the tour, Grover seated us at the bar downstairs and led us through a generous sampling of their whiskeys, including their flagships, a couple ryes (one of their specialties), single-barrel spirits, and bottled-in-bond offerings (which means they’re produced under more rigorous standards).

After the tour and tasting, we walked across the parking lot to the proudly 90s-themed Party Source. The store is a legend amongst those who collect spirits. It features a huge liquor selection, as well as beers, wines, and yes, party supplies. When Ken Lewis started New Riff, he was required to sell Party Source (he couldn’t own a distillery and a liquor store simultaneously), so he sold it to the employees.

After regrouping at the hotel we strolled around Covington a bit, eyeing several of the shops around the area.

Then we headed out to the Mainstrasse Village, the historic main street of Covington. We grabbed our guidebooks for The B-Line, a handy passport that lists bourbon bars, distilleries, and bourbon-centric restaurants along the northern Kentucky bourbon trail. You can collect stamps in the booklet and earn prizes.

Dinner that night was Otto’s, a long-running spot on Main Street. Everyone we asked recommended it. It provided a warm and cozy spot for cocktails, fried green tomatoes, Cajun cream pasta, and braised short ribs.

Afterwards we strolled down the street to the Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar. The one-room space is loaded with over 800 bottles, at least 600-650 of which are bourbons. You can order cocktails, tastes, or curated flights of different spirits.

The next morning dawned bright and cold. After a first round of coffee at the hotel, we jumped in the car and drove a few minutes over to Monmouth Street, the main stretch of Newport. We found the beautiful little corner space of The Baker’s Table Bakery, a companion to The Baker’s Table restaurant across the street. We enjoyed a delightful breakfast of coffee, cinnamon rolls, and quiche, all expertly prepared.

Outside the bakery, we met Craig, one of the guides for American Legacy Tours’ Newport Gangster Tour. The tour company organizes itineraries around several themes, from local history to wine and desserts, haunted tours and underground explorations. My brothers and I took the Queen City Underground tour in Over-the-Rhine several years ago.

The Newport Gangster Tour was their original tour, and it explores the surprising history behind Newport, which at one time was Las Vegas before Las Vegas was a thing. It was home to several casinos, which invited all the colorful stories you might expect. Craig was a fount of knowledge, taking us down the street and pointing out bars, clubs, breweries, and telling stories of the gangsters, citizens, politicians, and policemen involved in the area’s sometimes sordid history.

The walk was frigid, with the wind whipping up the street, so after bidding adieu to Craig, we hustled over to Carabello Coffee. Several friends had recommended it, particularly their Analog Coffee Bar.

Analog is a six-seat counter inside Carabello offering a specialty menu. It was an absolutely delightful experience. The barista Cheyne offered us a warm welcome as we grabbed our seats. He carefully walked us through the seasonal menu. They offer everything from espresso to pour overs to specialty drinks. I ordered a top-notch espresso, and we sipped on the Hot Buttered Spro (espresso over a buttered batter with steamed cream and orange peel) and the Affection (espresso, vanilla syrup, smoked bourbon sugar, Earl Grey spritz).

I’d absolutely recommend a stop at the Analog Coffee Bar. We’ll detour there any time we’re in the area.

For lunch later we visited Kung Food Amerasia, just down the street from the hotel. It came highly recommended by everyone we talked to. It serves a fun fusion of Chinese dishes. We enjoyed it, but weren’t as impressed as everyone else. It was just missing a real punch of seasoning that made it super crave-able.

Later that afternoon we drove west over to Ludlow to tour Second Sight Spirits. Our tour there was an absolute delight. Our guide Carus Waggoner co-created the space with Rick Couch. The duo had been working building sets for Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas when they grew interested in distilling, eventually learning how to put together a system with a new distiller in the area.

Fast forward a few years, and they opened their own distillery back home in Kentucky, building everything themselves, including crafting their own still to look like a side show fortune teller. Carus was super friendly and engaging, and full of great stories. Their cocktail bar is clearly a beloved place to gather, with concerts, drag shows, and more.

And of course, the line-up of spirits were tasted were top-notch. They make a few different rums, an oaked Kentucky bourbon, and a hazelnut liqueur.

Fun little side note that Carus shared: one of their designer friends illustrates Marvel comics, and he worked in Second Sight to an issue, where Nick Fury throws a bottle at a bad guy!

After the Second Sight tour, we walked across the street to Bircus Brewing. Bircus gets its name from “Beer + Circus,” and makes its home in the old Ludlow Theatre. The space has been converted into a big, open taproom, with a bar at the front and open seating. This allows them to host a number of shows; they were setting up for a magic show when we visited.

On the drive back to Covington, we made a quick stop in Ludlow so I could check out the train viewing platform. Never pass up the chance to watch some trains.

We relaxed at the hotel for a bit, then for dinner we walked over to Libby’s Southern Comfort. Libby’s came highly recommended for its modern take on Southern classics: cocktails, goetta hush puppies, a Kentucky hot brown, crispy fried chicken.

And I didn’t get a good photo of us, but we were lucky to be joined by my brother and sister-in-law from Lexington! They drove up for the evening just to have dinner with us!

After they headed out, Beth and I walked over to Rich’s Proper Food & Drink, a restaurant and cocktail bar across the street from Hotel Covington. We just grabbed drinks at the bar – Beth a cocktail and me a taste of E.H. Taylor Small Batch. But the bartenders were very welcoming, and even tested out a new drink on us.

It snowed overnight, giving Covington a fluffy white covering our final morning there. It made for a delightful trek for coffee and pastries.

First stop was a couple blocks from the hotel to Left Bank Coffeehouse, a small walk-up window offering coffee and baked goods. It’s in a cute old home, the front of which is an art studio.

Second stop was just up the street to Bircus Brewing’s Covington taproom, which in the morning is home to North South Baking Company. Our friend Valerie Belt recommended the spot, and boy, was she right. The bakery pops up at Bircus Thursday through Sunday mornings with a stellar lineup of croissants, cruffins, sandwiches. We sampled an almond croissant, a Boston cream-filled cruffin, and a mock kouign-amann. All of it amazingly crafted.

And that began to wrap up the trip. We made two stops on the way out of town. First was down to the river to the historic Riverside Drive district. It’s a stunning collection of historic homes on the southwest corner of the Ohio and Licking Rivers. The homes there enjoy views of the Cincinnati skyline.

Along the waterfront you can take the Riverside Drive Statue Tour, a short itinerary that takes you to six bronze statues depicting historical figures like John A. Roebling (designer of the iconic bridge), Captain Mary B. Green, Chief Little Turtle, and others.

Final stop was Lil’s Bagels, an oft-recommended shop in an old home serving a unique collection of house-made bagels and sandwiches. Beth tried the Bad Judy, a veggie sandwich on a turmeric bagel. They were sadly out of pastrami, so I tasted the Reuvera, essentially a turkey reuben.

And then we were on our way!

…okay, with maybe one last stop for coffee at Collective Espresso in Over-the-Rhine…

Disclaimer: this trip was hosted by the Northern Kentucky Convention & Visitors Bureau. Accommodations, tours, and some meals were provided. Gratuity, other meals, and photos were handled by us. Opinions are our own.

Planning your own trip to Cincinnati or Northern Kentucky? Check out our Cincinnati travel page for ideas in food, drink, attractions, parks, accommodations, and more!

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I go by Dr. Breakfast, but in addition to restaurants and recipes, I write about family travel, breweries and distilleries, the arts, outdoor fun, and so much more.

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