Touring The B-Line: Northern Kentucky's bourbon trail

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail draws thousands of tourists a year, with most of the travelers visiting the traditional blue blood names in Central Kentucky, such as the Maker’s Marks, Heaven Hills and Jim Beams of the world.

Closer to home, the bourbon-curious can partake in Northern Kentucky’s version of the Bourbon Trail, The B-Line.

Put together a few years ago by the marketeers at the Northern Kentucky Convention and Visitors Bureau, The B-Line includes five bourbon distilleries, along with eight bars and six bourbon-centric restaurants.

The distilleries are all small (in some cases, tiny) craft outfits, each with their own story to tell.

Our tour started about an hour’s drive from Covington at Old Pogue Distillery in Maysville. Old Pogue’s story dates to 1876 when Henry Edgar Pogue purchased a distillery on the banks of the Ohio River. When he died in an accident at the distillery in 1890, his son, H.E. Pogue II, took over, making Old Pogue Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky and many other brands.

When he died in a work-related accident in 1919, his son, H.E. Pogue III, returned home from fighting in World War I to run the operation.  That happened to be the same year Congress passed the Volstead Act, putting teeth into the prohibition of making and selling alcohol. The Pogues were stuck with 45,000 barrels of bourbon, which they managed to sell off over time as medicine.

Although Prohibition ended in 1933, restarting the distillery was problematic, and the family sold it in 1935. But over the decades, Kentucky bourbon began to take on a cachet of its own, sales grew around the country and overseas as food tourism and interest in high-quality spirits grew. A lunch with a Kentucky whiskey historian persuaded H.E. Pogue V to reinvest in the family business and open the distillery again in 2004, says John Pogue.

John, a former geologist, returned to the family business to be the head distiller. Peter Pogue is the president of the small craft enterprise.

The small distillery sits on a bluff overlooking the Ohio, and is next to the family homestead, which is now used for tours, tastings, and family get-togethers.

“This is just a little family business,” says John Pogue. “My grandfather decided to rekindle it.”

Old Pogue Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey and Old Maysville Club rye whiskey are only available at retail in Kentucky, Illinois, and New York. They can also be bought at the distillery, which will notify customers of their release by email.

Our next stop on The B-Line was at the other end of the spectrum of bourbon history. Second Sight Spirits was started by Carus Waggoner and Rick Couch, two 40-something guys who have been friends since their days at Connor High School in Boone County.

Neither had much experience in making spirits, but they were enjoying a few one day in Rick’s garage when they decided – why not -- to build a still.

Couch is a mechanical engineer by training, while Waggoner is an industrial designer. The two were working in Las Vegas creating and maintaining huge set pieces for big Cirque de Soleil shows like Viva Elvis and The Beatles LOVE.  Rick built a stove-top still and they started sourcing fresh produce from nearby California, experimenting with fermenting and distillation.  They shared their experiments with their theater colleagues.

“They’re a hardy stock of people,” says Waggoner.

An acquaintance in Vegas also became interested in distilling and had purchased a $180,000 still from Germany, in pieces, that the two helped him figure out how to put together. That helped spark an interest in craft distilling, which was becoming popular on the coasts at the time.

They decided to move back home, and landed their enterprise in the business district of Ludlow, which welcomed them with open arms. They made their still themselves, sourcing some parts from Craigslist, milling others themselves.

They settled on the name Second Sight Spirits “because we didn’t have a hundred years of heritage like the big guys, and we’re not related to any cool dead people,” Waggoner says. “We decided to look to the future. That’s what second sight means – having a vision for the future.”

The bar and event space at Second Sight Spirits, LudlowThe pair started operations in 2014, and in 2019 expanded, adding a cocktail lounge and event space. Second Sights bourbon is made with four grains – corn, wheat, rye, and malted barley -- and aged in small, 15-gallon barrels. While the bourbon was aging, the duo made a variety of rums (the smoked cherry rum is particularly enticing) and a hazelnut liqueur.

A long friendship also led to the creation of the next stop on The B-Line, Boone County Distilling, on Toebben Drive, just outside of Independence.

Josh Quinn and Jack Wells met, appropriately enough, outside of a bar in Covington years ago. It was the old Jack Quinn’s, which Wells owned. Josh Quinn, a longtime Boone County sheriff’s deputy, FBI investigator, and bagpipe player, was playing the pipes at the bar, and the two struck up a conversation. They shared a love of spirits, and partaking one evening, the talk turned to making bourbon. “How hard could it be?” asked Wells, an entrepreneur who still makes a living in the coal business.

They started investigating the equipment and the process, found a consultant in Larry Ebersold, a master distiller from Hebron, and went to work.

Marketing is almost as critical to selling bourbon as fermentation, and the pair happened upon a history of a distillery that began operating in the Boone County town of Petersburg in 1833. Over the next 50 years, it became one of the largest distilleries in Kentucky, but closed its doors in 1910.  Wells and Quinn adopted the story, and in 2015 began bottling bourbon in Boone County again, with the tagline “Made by Ghosts.”

Their first products were sourced from the massive distillery in Lawrenceburg, Ind. Last October, their own formula, a six-year-old, pot-still bourbon, distilled, aged, and bottled in Boone County, was ready to come out of the barrels.

In Sparta, a stone’s throw from the Kentucky Speedway, the Neeley Family Distillery set up shop in 2015. It was, they claim, the first time the family went legal after ten generations of Neeley family bootlegging, dating to its roots in Ireland.

Family lore has it that James Neeley brought his handmade, copper-pot still with him on the boat when he migrated from Ireland. He settled his family in Pennsylvania and began distilling whiskey there; moved to Virginia and ran whiskey there. Staying one step ahead of the law, the family moved to the mountains of Eastern Kentucky around 1840, and made a name for themselves as moonshiners.

“We have as much illegal history in this state as the Beams have legal,” says Royce Neeley, part of the 11th generation of Neeleys.

Royce carried on the family tradition while a student at Transylvania College, building a 10-gallon still he set up in his kitchen. The family went legit in 2015 when they opened the Sparta distillery, which was built by Royce’s father, Roy.

The Neeleys use a sweet mash process, which they say allows yeast to work longer and produce more complex flavors. Its signature product is a 12-year-old, single-barrel bourbon. The distillery also sells moonshine (the legal kind, we assume), and flavored whiskeys.

The glitziest stop on The B-Line is New Riff Distilling, located on Dave Cowens Drive, on Bellevue’s border with Newport. New Riff was started in 2014 by Ken Lewis, who, after decades of selling liquor as owner of The Party Source, decided to make it.

New Riff, the company says, is led by a team of corporate refugees who have a mission “to someday be counted among the world’s great distilleries.”

It built a rickhouse on Lowell Street in Newport, and in 2019 expanded it, doubling its capacity to 36,000 barrels. New Riff's bourbons are bottled in bond, a 19th century designation that was created to ensure quality. Bottled-in-bond spirits must be aged for at least four years and bottled at precisely 100 proof. They must be made by one distiller at a single distillery in one season, then aged in a bonded warehouse.

In 2019, New Riff won a Double Gold medal for each of the five categories it entered at the 2019 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, one of the most respected whiskey awards competitions.

In addition to the five distilleries, there are restaurants and bars on The B-Line, and motivated tourists can earn swag by collecting stamps from at least two distilleries, two bars, and two restaurants. They are: Beehive Tavern in Augusta, Three Spirits Tavern in Bellevue, Tousey House Tavern in Burlington, The Purple Poulet in Newport, Prohibition Bourbon Bar in Newport, and in Covington, Bouquet, Libby’s Southern Comfort, Smoke Justis, Rich’s Proper Food and Drink, Coppins, Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar, Bourbon Haus 1841, The Globe, and Wiseguy Lounge.

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