Bourbon Country Idyll - 405 Magazine

Bourbon Country Idyll

Raise a glass to Covington, Kentucky.

Courtesy meetNKY

Raise a glass to Covington, Kentucky.

In northern Kentucky, history and culture converge in singular style in Covington. Perched at the confluence of the Licking River and mighty Ohio River, the latter of which flows along the Cincinnati border, Covington is a place where the Midwest meets the South, and where the old harmonizes with the new. National historic districts and buildings share turf with eccentric distilleries, restaurants both classic and cutting-edge and whimsical museums, all sandwiched between the metropolitan riches of Cincinnati and the lush rolling hills of bourbon country. 

Where to Stay

For a city of barely 40,000 people, Covington boasts an impressive slate of unique lodging options. Chief among them, and very on brand for a community nestled outside bourbon country, is a boutique hotel that contains its very own distillery. The Pickle Factory is a property accessed from an artsy alley off Madison Avenue and rife with history. The brick building dates back to 1873, when Henry Wenzel first used it as a soda warehouse before transforming it into a pickle factory — hence the name. The second and third floors, which formerly housed the African American Odd Fellows Hall, have been carefully restored and retrofitted into lofty, whimsically designed guest rooms. On the ground floor, the former pickle operation has morphed into Wenzel Whiskey, where bourbon aficionados can sip liquor distilled on site and even customize their own blends to bottle themselves. 

Down the street, the Hotel Covington is a property of equal history, although the confines are decidedly more decadent. Adjoined by a new suite-centric addition, North by Hotel Covington, the ornate abode comprises two preserved buildings: one the state’s first skyscraper and the other a former YMCA, where the historic facade gives way to contemporary luxury within. The hotel’s restaurant, Coppin’s Restaurant + Bar, gets its name from John Coppin, who once ran a high-end department store in the building. 

Pickle-Factory_In-a-Pickle Retro Loft Couch Courtesy The Pickle Factory Hotel by Neat Suites

Where to Eat and Drink

Eclectic, seasonal and creative, northern Kentucky’s dining scene is as robust and dynamic as far larger cities. That character is evident in its ritzier tasting menu ventures such as The Baker’s Table, a chef-driven opus in Newport where ever-changing degustations include the likes of strawberry-strewn stracciatella and salmon in sorrel beurre blanc. But it’s equally palpable at humble eateries like Lil’s Kitchen, a kaleidoscopic cafe that began as a beloved bagel shop downtown before moving to a new location within Roebling Point Books & Coffee in Dayton. The bagels may be gone, but this queer-owned cafe is tastier than ever, with a Middle Eastern-leaning menu that includes tahini- and date-infused smoothies, Israeli couscous salads and merguez sausage “hawt” pockets. Don’t miss the fan-favorite egg salad, a famous (and secret) recipe sandwiched with pickled green tomatoes on salted rye. 

For a sweeter start to your morning, pop into North South Baking Co., a funky bakery slinging some of the region’s most interesting finger-licking pastries — all made with local grains, eggs, honey and produce. The goods come in all manner of flavors and styles, each one more alluring than the next: miso mushroom Danishes, strawberry-lavender brioche coffee cake, coffee-glazed babka buns and cruffins, a.k.a. croissant muffins, filled with the likes of Boston cream and jammy rhubarb. 

Indicative of Covington’s location straddling the Midwest and the South, Libby’s Southern Comfort is a savory foray into the latter by way of fried chicken, fried green tomatoes and Cheerwine bourbon slush — the Southern cherry pop is spiked with Kentucky’s signature spirit. Be sure and sample the goetta hushpuppies while you’re at it. A true regional specialty, they’re fritters made with locally produced goetta, a sausage-like medley popularized by German immigrants in Cincinnati. 

Come dinner, stroll through bustling Mainstrasse Village and transport yourself to New York City via Mama’s on Main. An homage to that city’s red sauce Italian-Americana, the hearty restaurant marries hip decor — like vintage plates along the walls and a stained-glass window — with a deep Italian wine list and the marinara-soaked comforts of fried calamari, arancini, meatballs and a pitch-perfect eggplant Parmesan boasting thick slabs of fried veggies nestled in a swirl of saucy spaghetti. 

It’s regarded as the gateway to bourbon country, so you’d be remiss to come to northern Kentucky without partaking in its native elixir. Distilleries, bottle shops and bars abound all over Covington and its surrounding communities, and most cocktail bars, like the fancifully decorated Second Story Bar located over an ax-throwing bar, feature bourbon prominently in mixed drinks. In Ludlow, Second Sight Spirits brings a certain theatricality to bourbon-sipping. That’s thanks to founders Rick Couch and Carus Waggoner, childhood friends who formerly worked together on sets for Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas and bring that whimsicality to Kentucky with a tasting room inspired by magic and illusion. It’s the rare distillery experience where imbibers can sip bourbon and numerous other spirits in a room that includes a fortune-telling fish tank and a whiskey still shaped like a giant Houdini. 

For a deeper dive into the vast world of Kentucky bourbon, Revival Vintage Bottle Shop is a storefront so intensive in its historic portfolio that it feels more like a bourbon museum. Its curators are Brad Bonds and Shannon Smith, who stock their storied shelves with spirits so rare and vintage that some predate Prohibition. Guests are free to peruse the endearingly dusty collection, marveling at poodle-shaped decanters and an extensive library of timeworn bottles, then pull up a barstool and enjoy up to four 1/2-ounce pours of whatever spirit they’re sampling that day.  

Mamas on Main Spread of dishes Overhead 2 Courtesy meetNKY scaled

Where to Play

Around here, bourbon is as much an activity as it is a drink. The best way to partake is by embarking on The B-Line, a self-guided tour of distilleries, bars and restaurants throughout the region, featuring participating stopovers like the aforementioned Revival Vintage Bottle Shop and Libby’s Southern Comfort, plus Lisse Steakhuis, The Beehive Augusta Tavern, Rich’s Proper Food & Drink and Neeley Family Distillery. Then there’s New Riff Distilling, a theme park-sized distillery that serves as an anchor of The B-Line and offers immersive tours, a tasting bar and a boozy gift shop. 

Beyond booze, recreation opportunities include shopping at Hail Records & Oddities, a one-of-a-kind boutique stocked with everything from tarot cards to taxidermy; hiking and fishing at 700-acre Devou Park; and walking over the historic John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, an architectural icon built by the same man who designed the Brooklyn Bridge.

In case you haven’t gotten your fill of whimsy yet, look no farther than the preserved-in-time river hamlet known as Rabbit Hash. This small unincorporated town, located about 45 minutes southwest of Covington, is a forested community where the mayor is a literal dog ( a French bulldog named Wilbur Beast), the main business is a general store circa 1831 and bluegrass barn dances are a recurring activity. Quiet and quirky, it’s the perfect place to sit on a picnic table by the river, chowing down on smoked meats from Chef Hip E’s Cocina Loca

Then there’s the Vent Haven Museum, a peerless piece of cultural craft in the town of Fort Mitchell, home to the world’s only museum dedicated to ventriloquism. Newly reopened after extensive renovations, the multiroom museum tells the vaunted history of dummies, addressing their complicated origins with stereotypes and tropes and tracing their evolution through the arts. Altogether, the fascinating collection boasts more than 1,000 dummies, and despite the innate creepiness that many people associate with them, it’s a truly illuminating experience you won’t find anywhere else.

Mamas on Main Dining Room Booth Courtesy meetNKY scaled