CKY Market Review: New attractions, initiatives have changed the landscape of tourism

By Kathie Stamps

Grammy Award winner Brandi Carlile performed at the inaugural Railbird Festival at Keeneland Racetrack in Lexington, along with Old Crow Medicine Show, Hozier and others.

The tourism landscape in Central Kentucky has changed so much, it’s difficult to keep up. Five years ago, believe it or not, it wasn’t very easy to schedule a horse farm tour here in the Horse Capital of the World. Why? Horse Country Inc., a website that allows visitors to book various horse farm tours all over the Bluegrass, didn’t exist.

Neither did the Distillery District or City Center, Courthouse Square, the Summit at Fritz Farm, Justins’ House of Bourbon, Castle & Key Distillery in Frankfort or the explosive locally sourced cuisine scene. Keeneland hadn’t yet hosted the Breeders’ Cup. Gaming machines hadn’t hit the Red Mile harness track and the Kentucky Castle wasn’t yet a hotel.

Yes, it has been a time of explosive growth. And in another three years, Town Branch Commons is going to be even more transformative as downtown sprawls and becomes more pedestrian-friendly, and the expanded Lexington Convention Center and Rupp Arena brings in larger conventions and other events (see Real Estate and Construction story on page 48).

There was a 3.7% increase in visitor spending statewide in 2018, with 71.6 million visitors spending nearly $7.6 billion across the commonwealth, according to research conducted on behalf of the Kentucky Department of Tourism.

In 2018, sales leads from VisitLEX booked 81,000 hotel rooms in Lexington for a direct spending impact of over $26 million and total hotel room revenue of $191 million. Formerly known as the area’s CVB, or convention and visitors bureau, VisitLEX promotes Lexington and Central Kentucky to attract visitors and grow the economy.

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In the summer of 2017, VisitLEX engaged with an outside firm to audit Lexington’s tourism assets. The ensuing executive report said horses and bourbon sectors were first-rate, but there was room for a destination-style music festival celebrating both industries. The result was the Railbird Festival, held on the grounds of Keeneland in August 2019, with three stages hosting 30 acts, including big names like The Raconteurs, Hozier, Brandi Carlile and Tyler Childers.

“The inaugural Railbird Festival was, by all accounts, a tremendous success,” said Mary Quinn Ramer, president of VisitLEX. “From the Limestone, Elkhorn and Burl Stages to the Rick House, kid’s area and food demos, there was something for every spectator.”

There were 15,000 attendees on Saturday and 16,000 on Sunday, both hot and sunny days, from 48 states (minus Hawaii and Utah) plus Washington, D.C. and 11 countries.

“We are pleased to have this outstanding event in our destination portfolio, and we are looking forward to next year’s event,” Ramer said.

In horseracing circles, a railbird is a person who watches the races all day from the railings along the track – a true fan. For Railbird Festival fans, the music came with optional off-track wagering on site, along with plenty of local food vendors, craft beers and bourbon distillers on-site.

Bourbon continues to drive growth

Kentucky’s bourbon industry is exceptionally healthy: In 2018, the state’s aging bourbon inventory reached 7.5 million barrels, the most since 1972, according to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association (KDA). The tax-assessed value of the aging bourbon also hit a record high – $3 billion. The bourbon industry generates as many as 17,500 jobs with an annual payroll topping $800 million and pours $825 million into tax coffers each year. The industry is also in the middle of a $1.2 billion building boom that will add new tourism centers and expanded production facilities.

Kentucky has always been known for its bourbon, but the introduction of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail in 1999 turned it into a tourism engine. Some of the popular Central Kentucky distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail or its Craft Tour are Woodford Reserve, Barrel House, Bluegrass Distillers, Town Branch Distillery and the reopened James E. Pepper Distillery.

Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort is in the midst of a $1.2 billion expansion, building a new barrel warehouse every few months for the next several years. In 2018, a record attendance of 231,523 guests toured the distillery, necessitating a larger visitors center, which is in the works. Buffalo Trace released a commemorative bottle of Elmer T. Lee bourbon in August 2019 in honor of the master distiller’s 100th birthday.
Lee created Blanton’s in 1984, the world’s first single-barrel bourbon, and lived to be 93 years old. Proceeds of the limited edition $100 bottles of 100 proof bourbon go to Frankfort VFW Post 4075.

Castle & Key Distillery in Frankfort officially opened to the public in 2018 following extensive renovations to the historic property, which dates back to 1887. The new owners restored the 113-acre property’s structures, including a European-inspired castle.

A month after completing its $55 million expansion, Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg announced in May that it had become the official bourbon partner of Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, Calif., offering Four Roses cocktails and tastings at Rose Bowl events through January 2021.

To help keep bourbon distilling a Kentucky tradition for generations to come, Jim Beam Bourbon in 2019 donated $5 million to the University of Kentucky to establish the James B. Beam Institute for Kentucky Spirits. Led by the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, the institute will support curriculum to educate the next generation of distillers with the skills needed to succeed in the distilled spirits industry at the undergraduate, graduate and professional levels.

The $5 million donation was Beam Suntory’s largest single philanthropic or education gift in the company’s history.

“This donation is an investment in the future of bourbon, and Kentucky’s future workforce, and we are confident that the future for both is very bright indeed,” said Albert Baladi, president and CEO of Beam Suntory. “We are excited about the key role that this program will play in the continued global expansion of America’s native spirit.”

Distillery District becomes downtown destination

The James E. Pepper Distillery had been abandoned for more than 50 years when local entrepreneurs teamed up to breathe new life into the 25-acre property on Manchester Street, creating a lively downtown destination called the Distillery District.

Ten years later, the James E. Pepper Distillery was once again making whiskey.

Amir Peay, a businessman from the Washington, D.C. area, acquired the James E. Pepper label in 2008. Several years later, he and a couple of business partners purchased property in the Distillery District to relaunch the once-defunct Pepper brand. Work began in 2016; whiskey was being distilled by December 2017.

“We began giving tours in July 2018. It has gone phenomenally well,” Peay said.

Within a few months, James E. Pepper Distillery was the No. 1 rated attraction in Lexington on TripAdvisor, which was a great accomplishment, Peay said.

“We limit tours to 14 people to have small, intimate, interactive and educational tours,” he said.

The Pepper distillery is one of two bourbon distilleries located in the Distillery District. Barrel House craft distillery opened in 2008, and in 2017, the company launched Elkhorn Tavern onsite, a full cocktail bar with a rustic lodge-like atmosphere.

There’s much more than bourbon at the Distillery District, though. It is an easily walkable area with diverse food and drink offerings, a brewery and taproom, music and events venues, arts studios and not one, but two “doggy daycare” centers. There’s also Battle Axes, an axe-throwing, beer-drinking venue located in the rickhouse that was once part of the James E. Pepper Distillery.

More attractions are in the works.

“There is great energy, a great mix of things to do (in the Distillery District),” Peay said. “We have a bright future ahead of us.”

Central Kentucky’s culinary collection

Lexington has become well-known for having a large variety – and quantity – of restaurants. New restaurants at Summit at Fritz Farm and Hamburg, and other popular retail destinations, making dining out an easy choice, but deciding where to go can be tricky.

There are so many different foods to try that culinary tourism has its own print and online publication called “Beyond Grits,” produced by VisitLEX. The 2019 guide features 140 local restaurants, with categories for date night, pub food, porches and patios, and sweet treats, among other topics.

33 Staves is a new restaurant, bar and venue rental space at Origin Lexington, the boutique hotel that opened at the Summit at Fritz Farm in July 2019. Fun fact: It takes 33 pieces of wood known as staves to make a bourbon barrel. The 126-room Origin Lexington is dog-friendly and can provide tents and sleeping bags for kids, plus free in-room yoga kits among other wellness amenities.

Origin isn’t the only new hotel, just as 33 Staves is far from being the only new restaurant. In the spring of 2020, the heart of downtown Lexington welcomes the 218-room Lexington Marriott City Center and the 119 suites of Residence Inn Lexington City Center. The hotels are part of City Center, the long-awaited mixed-use facility, and share a fitness center and a virtual fitness studio. Guests of both hotels can swim in the rooftop pool or visit the skybar.

City Center also welcomed Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse in 2019. The Lexington restaurant has a gold dome, a Wildcat blue piano, antique crystal chandeliers, a Wildcat Room featuring UK sports memorabilia, a Gatsby-themed room and more. Jeff Ruby’s is an upscale, nationally acclaimed restaurant known for its steaks, seafood and sushi, as well as its service and live entertainment.

Barry Kuhnke, General Manager

Lexington Marriott City Center and Residence Inn

121 W.  Vine St.

Lexington, KY 40507

(859) 253-1000

The Lexington Marriott City Center and Residence Inn Lexington City Center hotels are in downtown Lexington, Ky.  The Marriott and Residence Inn will offer a combined 337 guest rooms and have over 10,000 s.f. of flexible meeting space. State of the art and modern, the hotels are locally relevant and a destination for all to enjoy.

Gerald H. Marvel, COO/GM, The Club at UK’s Spindletop Hall, GM, The Hilary J. Boone Center.

The Club at UK’s Spindletop Hall

34l4 lron Works Pike

Lexington, KY 40511

(859) 255-2777

The Hillary J. Boone Center

500 Rose St.

Lexington, KY 40506

(859) 257-1133

The Hilary J. Boone Center at the University of Kentucky and The Club at UK’s Spindletop Hall serve the University, Lexington, and surrounding communities.

The Boone Center is perfectly situated between the Singletary Center for the Arts, and the new Academic Science Building on Rose Street. With beautiful décor, as well as ample outdoor space that includes a courtyard and gated terrace, the club hosts corporate functions, weddings and more. Spindletop Hall is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As such, it provides the fairytale setting for weddings in the classical mansion, as well as an ideal space for business events complete with complimentary high-speed internet and all other technological needs for meetings. With something for everyone, recreational opportunities abound in a perfectly serene environment for members, including swimming, tennis, basketball, Pickleball, croquet, and more. Upscale casual dining is available poolside and in Roxie’s, the member dining room.


Apiary Catering & Events


Base 110

Blue Grass Airport

Boone Tavern Event Center (Berea)

Buffalo Trace Distillery (Frankfort)

Carrick House


Georgetown College Conference Center

Headley-Whitney Museum

Hilary J. Boone Center

Keeneland/Keene Barn

Kentucky Castle

Lexington Convention Center

Lexington Opera House

Limestone Hall

Mane on Main

Signature Club of Lansdowne

Spindletop Hall

Thoroughbred Center

Venues of the Grand Reserve


Beaumont Inn (Harrodsburg)

Bluegrass Extended Stay

Boone Tavern (Berea)

Bright Leaf Golf Resort (Harrodsburg)

Campbell House Lexington, Curio Collection by Hilton

Capital Plaza Hotel (Frankfort)

Clarion Hotel Conference Center North

DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Hotel Lexington

Embassy Suites Lexington

Griffin Gate Marriott Resort & Spa

Hilton Lexington/Downtown

Hyatt Regency Lexington

Kentucky Castle

Lexington Marriott City Center

Origin Lexington

Ramada Lexington North Hotel & Conference Center

21c Museum Hotel

Woodford Inn (Versailles)


Arboretum State Botanical Garden of Kentucky

Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate

Aviation Museum of Kentucky

Courthouse Square

Distillery District

Horse Country Tours

Hummel Planetarium (Richmond)


Kentucky Artisan Center
at Berea (Berea)

Kentucky Horse Park

Kentucky Theater

Mary Todd Lincoln House

McConnell Springs

Old Fort Harrod State Park (Harrodsburg)

Pioneer Playhouse (Danville)

Red Mile

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill (Harrodsburg)

Yuko-En On the Elkhorn, the Official Kentucky-Japan Friendship Garden (Georgetown)