by Anne Braly
Want to make a beeline for the best bourbon-centric businesses in Northern Kentucky?
Then sip your way along the Kentucky B-Line, a self-guided bourbon tour featuring 25 savory stops that stretch along 95 miles of the Bluegrass State.
The B-Line, established in 2018, differs from Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail, established in 1999 to showcase the state’s 46 distilleries. The B-Line includes seven distilleries, nine bars and nine restaurants, all with a bourbon focus, and is a regional experience highlighted by quaint Ohio River towns such as Covington, directly across the river from Cincinnati. Take advantage of its location and walk beneath or across the historic Roebling Suspension Bridge, opened for traffic in 1867 and named for architect John Roebling, who later designed its twin, the Brooklyn Bridge, circa 1883.
To be listed on the B-Line, restaurants must offer at least 50 bourbons and feature one or more bourbon-recipe dishes. Bars must have a minimum of 100 bourbons.
Pick up a “passport” guide at any of the B-Line stops and have it stamped at any two distilleries, two restaurants and two bars along the B-Line and earn swag, such as T-shirts, hats and other B-Line-branded merchandise.
You can arrange your own B-Line excursion by going online to www.thebline.com to download a map and plan your itinerary. Or, here’s a three-day suggestion for a memorable B-Line experience.
Begin your journey on the B-Line by checking into The Hotel Covington (hotelcovington.com), a former department store, and its sister connecting hotel, North, are now two hotels in one that make a statement when choosing a place to stay in the Kentucky/Cincinnati area.
The hotel was voted the No.1 boutique hotel in the Bluegrass State, according to U.S. News and World Report in 2022 and No. 2 in 2023.
Hotel Covington has queen and king rooms and North has apartment-style suites and kitchenettes with full-size refrigerators, microwaves, and Nespresso coffee machines.
Every attention to detail has been taken, with luxury bedding and toiletries, as well as bath robes and minibars stocked with snacks, sodas, wine and, of course, Kentucky bourbon.
The landmark hotel is central to several stops on the B-Line, some of which you can walk to from the center of Covington, while others may require a designated driver, Uber or other rideshare service just in case you overindulge. Better safe than sorry.
Arrive at lunchtime, stow your luggage at the hotel and walk across the street to Rich’s Proper (richsproper.com), a bar and restaurant that specializes in craft cocktails and pub fare owner Bill Whitlow describes as Southern fusion.
Whitlow is a genius when it comes to crafting cocktails and was once a king in the competitive bartending circuit, having twice won best mint julep in Kentucky, an event sponsored by Four Roses Bourbon and the Kentucky Derby. He’s also a two-time winner of Best Manhattan at the Manhattan Experience, an annual competition sponsored by Woodford Reserve.
So try his One Last Smoke, a bourbon-based concoction, to see what kind of magic an award-winning mixologist can create.
And on your plate? The most popular sandwich in the house is the Hot Honey Chicken Sandwich with a side of the crispiest best fries you might ever taste.
There is a sense of community among B-Line members, Whitlow says.
“Without it, I probably wouldn’t be sending customers to all the other restaurants and distilleries around here,” he says.
Next Stop: Walk down the street to partake in a vintage spirits experience at Revival Vintage Spirits and Bottle Shop (revivalky.com).
Enter the shotgun-style building and be amazed. Bottles as old as your grandma and some even older line shelves that span the walls.
Co-owner Brad Bonds says his shop is like American Pickers meets Pawn Stars. Bonds scours the region in search of bourbons and other old spirits in basements and bars. They range from everyday libations to those reserved for special occasions.
“See that one up there?” Bond points to a top-shelf bourbon from Old Taylor Distillery. “If the pope were here, that’s the one he would drink.”
Another is a bourbon he acquired from an old bar in Covington which Bond calls “the holy grail of holy grails.”
Most of his vintage bourbons are for sale. One, like an old bourbon from W.L. Weller & Sons, the forerunner of Buffalo Trace Distillery’s Pappy Van Winkle, sports a price tag north of $3,000.
“These bottles, each one is kind of like its own time capsule,” Bond says, pointing out an old bottle he got from Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo’s grandson that was tied to the bar where Rizzo, along with Rat Pack buddies Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. enjoyed a drink or two, or three.
Patrons of this vintage spirits store can also purchase a Bourbon Experience for $5, $10 or $25, depending on the spirits you wish to try.
Each sip is like a walk through time. “It’s humbling,” Bond says. “You just never know who’s going to walk through this door.”
Then, take a break back at Hotel Covington and rest up before a bourbon experience at Smoke Justis (smokejustis.com). The bar/restaurant wows you with a collection of 480 bourbons and more than 600 whiskeys that reach from bar level to ceiling.
Smoke Justis joined the B-Line in 2018, the year that Bourbon Review named it one of the top-100 bourbon bars in America.
“We’re known for our smooth bourbons and smoked meats,” says Jade Colwell, managing partner.
I recommend the smoked wings with Carolina Gold Sauce for dipping, and a house-favorite Old Fashioned with a signature ice cube emblazoned with the Smoke Justis logo.
The hardy traveler might finish the day with dinner at B-Line restaurant, Lisse Steakhuis (lisse.restaurant).
Walk off your meal with a stroll through Covington’s charming German heritage sector, Mainstrasse Village. It’s filled with retail and restaurants like Lisse Steakhuis, a Dutch-influenced American steakhouse with a farm-to-table mandate. Its prime, black Angus beef, pork, chicken and fresh produce come from its own Holland Farm in nearby Williamstown, Ky.
The menu features Dutch specialties – Kaassoufle, Bitterballen and an Indo-Dutch favorite, Nasi Goreng, as well as dry-aged steaks, pork chops, steak and lobster, and a luscious bone-in rib eye.
Start Day Two with breakfast at Anchor Grill. This no-frills, cash-only eatery was Food & Wine magazine’s No. 1 diner in Kentucky for 2022. Try the goetta, a sausage-like ground pork mixture that’s a regional specialty.
Hotel Covington’s restaurant, Coppin’s, also has goetta, as well as an omelet that covers your plate and other breakfast fare.
Then, onto more bourbon tastings.
Neely Family Distillery in nearby Sparta, Ky., is in its 11th generation of bourbon makers, this latest generation took to legally distilling after the previous 10 generations bootlegged in the Kentucky mountains. Take a tour and taste at the bar afterward. Stop by (4360 KY-1130) or make a reservation at neeleyfamilydistillery.com.
Time that liquor experience with a short trip to Burlington, Ky., and food at Tousey House Tavern. Located in a 200-year-old home, the tavern serves Southern favorites, like its own take on a Hot Brown.
Then to re-lift your spirits, go to Boone County Distilling (1061 Toebben Dr., Florence, Ky.).
Boone honors its bourbon history by its motto: Made By Ghosts. Those “ghosts” are the distillers who paved the way. The distillery opened in 2015 and is on a small scale, but the flavors are big and bold. Tastings are held in an oversized bourbon barrel. Reservations: boonedistilling.com.
After a full day of bourbon, have dinner at Purple Poulet in Newport, a river town neighboring Covington. The restaurant is an area favorite serving Southern fare, including fried chicken that Southern Living rated as the best fried chicken in Kentucky in 2018.
It’s your final day of sips on the B-Line, so make the most of it by starting early at New Riff Distilling. It’s among the newest of the B-Line distilleries, this year celebrating its 10th year of making bourbon in the traditional way of Kentucky’s past distillers, then putting their own riff on it, using water from an alluvial aquifer deep within below the distillery. Learn all about it by taking a tour, then relax with a hand-crafted cocktail and small bites in the newly opened bar space on the top floor. For tour reservations, visit newriffdistilling.com.
The New Riff tour takes about an hour, after which a return trip to Covington finds bourbon lovers blending their own libations at Wenzel Whiskey (wenzelwhiskey.com).
The blending experience offers guests four bourbons for tastings, then gives lessons on blending a bottle to your specifications. An ounce or two of this, a little of that one, and you walk out the door with a bottle of your own recipe and your name on it.
“It’s like the arts and crafts of bourbon,” says co-owner Whitlow, the same man who owns Rich’s Proper.
The business is currently open for the blending experience only, but by summer 2024, Wenzel will begin distilling its own bourbon, becoming the first active distillery in the Covington city limits since Prohibition.
Return to Covington’s Mainstrasse Village for dinner at Bouquet Restaurant, a sister eatery of Lisse Steakhouse. I suggest any of the fish dishes served with fresh vegetables from Holland Farms. The menu changes weekly, as offerings depend on what’s in season. Regardless, it’s sure to be a delectable delight.