Home » Northern Kentucky is making a name for itself in bourbon

Northern Kentucky is making a name for itself in bourbon

By Abby Laub

Thanks in part to distilleries like New Riff Distillery in Newport, Northern Kentucky was dubbed an “official gateway” to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
Thanks in part to distilleries like New Riff Distillery in Newport, Northern Kentucky was dubbed an “official gateway” to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

While the Western world organizes dates by Before Christ and Anno Domini (BC and AD), the year 2018 might mark a milestone for Northern Kentucky’s hospitality sector, which already bursts with attractions that account for 20 percent of Kentucky tourism and nearly 10 percent of its hospitality jobs.

MRNK-tag-artBourbon is “officially” arriving in Northern Kentucky and the economic implications may separate the region into “Before Bourbon” and “After Bourbon,” thanks to work by meetNKY and new designations by the Kentucky Distillers’ Association. In November 2017, Northern Kentucky was designated an “official gateway” to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, and new distilleries are coming onto the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Trail.

The gateway designation aims to bring more thirsty visitors into the state from around the world.

Bourbon is a key focus of meetNKY, said its President & CEO Eric Summe, CDME, CTA.

“That’s a key priority right now,” he said. “We have gotten together with the distilleries in Northern Kentucky that are already on the KDA Bourbon Craft Tour, and with Kenton, Campbell and Boone County administrators, we formed a group earlier in the year that included the distilleries we have here.”

Local distilleries include New Riff Distilling in Newport and Old Pogue Distillery in Maysville. There are plans are to launch the Bourbon Line or “B Line” in early 2018 to promote the region’s increasing number of bars and distilleries.

“There is so much more to come on this,” Summe said. “We’ve recruited bourbon bars, bourbon restaurants, and each of those are required to have a set number of bourbons they offer for sale. And we’ve got an official license agreement with the regular (Kentucky) Bourbon Trail – so we can share in their promotion and put some tours together.”

Adam Johnson, senior director of the KDA’s KBT™ experiences, said the partnership with meetNKY is a “great one” for the KDA, and that Northern Kentucky is an ideal location to draw people into Kentucky and the rest of its famed bourbon stops. Quick drives down Interstates 71 and 75 from the Cincinnati region bring visitors to most of the other bourbon trail stops.

Kentucky Bourbon is one of the commonwealth’s most historic and treasured industries, a booming $8.5 billion economic engine generating about 17,500 jobs. The industry’s current $1.2 billion building boom is adding tourism and further expanding production facilities.

Johnson called Northern Kentucky a “charming, thriving region that showcases an exceptional mix of Bourbon history and urban innovation.” He hopes the partnership will capture that energy not only in bourbon and distilleries but in other restaurants and events. In August 2017, Bourbon Review magazine designated five Northern Kentucky establishment among the Top Bourbon Bars in America.

“You’re up there, and Cincinnati is a great town with a lot to do, and Northern Kentucky is a really big part of that,” Johnson said. “It’s got a good craft distillery scene with some of the oldest brands like Old Pogue, a new spin on it with New Riff (Distillery) and lots of fun stuff at Second Sight Distillery in Ludlow. Boone County Distilling (in Independence) is killing it with all of their events, and we’ve got some of these new guys coming on board like the Neeley Family Distillery in Sparta.

“It’s an exciting time, especially with the new airport options and lots of overseas connections coming in,” Johnson said. “What Northern Kentucky is doing is kind of complimenting what we’re trying achieve.”

Craft trail visitors in 2016 accounted for 200,000 of the total 1 million Kentucky Bourbon Trail visits, he said, and the “craft guys have really led the charge” by enhancing the visitor experience.

As an “official gateway” sponsor, the region will receive recommended itineraries marketing support from the KBT. Louisville also is a “gateway” level KBT sponsor.

Johnson commended efforts to amp up international flights at Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport, so visitors can now fly direct to Kentucky from overseas. WOW Airlines starts CVG service in 2018, making Northern Kentucky more reachable by internationals. CVG offers Kentucky’s the only nonstop international flights.

‘Europeans are very hot for the South’

MeetNKY is focused on keeping those international visitors happy, Summe said, and while bourbon clearly will help, it’s not all there is to experience.

Northern Kentucky is a rich in history, sights, festivals, hotels, restaurants and outdoor recreation. The Cincinnati USA Regional Tourism Network, though it bears the name of the close northern neighbor, works hard to promote the region. RTN is a destination marketing organization for leisure travel to the tri-state area. RTN promotes leisure tourism on behalf of 15 counties in three states. In Indiana the primary focus is casinos, and in Ohio the emphasis is mainly on Cincinnati’s Hamilton County. However, the other counties are in Kentucky, where visitors will find interesting experiences and hotels within a 40-mile radius of the Ohio River where Covington and Cincinnati meet.

RTN saw record levels of growth in 2016. That included a nearly 5 percent growth in peak-season hospitality revenue, an $11.5 million increase over 2015. CincinnatiUSA.com, the region’s largest travel website, had its highest single-year visitation in site history (3.4 million visits) with 70 percent of web visitors from outside the Cincinnati region; online visitors from Nashville increased 57 percent.

Northern Kentucky focuses on introducing visitors to Southern hospitality within walkable distance from the major metropolis. Summe expects his area to continue to capitalize on this in 2018. In addition to bourbon, meetNKY has its eye on foreign travelers and conference planners, and talks are ongoing with convention and visitors bureaus around the South.

“We are a co-investor with the Lexington and Louisville CVBs along with the state tourism cabinet … we fund an initiative called visitKY USA,” Summe said. “We have engaged the services of Lofthouse Enterprises, an international marketing specialist. We are targeting certain parts of the world, primarily Western Europe, because our market research indicates that’s the greatest potential for business. They have a particular interest in traveling in the South and have already demonstrated that in Southern states. They’ve already seen the primary (U.S.) sites like Statue of Liberty and Disney World and have an acute interest in the South and ‘authentic’ experiences. Europeans are very hot for the South.”

Europeans can easily reach Kentucky and the rest of the South directly from Northern Kentucky.

Convention center gets green light

The 204,000-s.f. Northern Kentucky Convention Center, built in 1998 in downtown Covington, has fresh backing from local government to actively pursue expansion. MeetNKY sells convention center inventory within a 12-month timeframe for all conventions, meetings and local events; this is a competitive sector, and space limitations are becoming an issue.

This past summer, the Fiscal Courts in Boone, Campbell and Kenton Counties voted unanimously to approve a 1 percent increase in Northern Kentucky’s hotel bed tax to support plans to expand the Northern Kentucky Convention Center.

The bed tax increase is committed toward and will generate an estimated $1.2 million to $1.5 million annually for expansion of the center, which is the cornerstone of a Northern Kentucky tourism sector whose overall economic impact is roughly $400 million a year. The hike was doable because the local bed tax is lower than elsewhere.

The next steps involve undertaking a comprehensive feasibility study, including a market and financial analysis, which will position the Convention Center as a competitive venue for years to come. Summe said. “A year from now we’d like to be having an initial expansion plan in place.”

Fortuitously, next door to the convention center on a 23-acre site is a large Internal Revenue Service processing center due to close in 2019. That space could come into play.

German influence, authentic experiences

A little farther outside Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties are unique attractions like the all-new Ark Encounter in Williamstown. Phase one of the $100 million theme park opened in July 2016 and centers around a replica of Noah’s ark that is an eye-popping 51 feet high and 510 feet long. The Ark Encounter is owned by Answers in Genesis, headquartered in Boone County, where it also operates the 75,000-s.f. Creation Museum. The venues have spurred an uptick in faith-based travel in Northern Kentucky.

In nearby Union, Big Bone Lick near Union is considered the birthplace of American vertebrate paleontology due to the impressive Ice Age artifacts the site has yielded. In 2016, a new interactive “ancient bison” exhibit was added.

Many of Northern Kentucky’s attractions center around the strong German heritage of the Greater Cincinnati metro area.

In Covington, the MainStrasse Village Association was formed in 1979 to celebrate the area’s German history and modern tourism. An annual MainStrasse Village Maifest fills six city blocks with a celebration focused on the German tradition of welcoming the first wines of spring. Every September the village biergarten hosts a hopping Oktoberfest.

Another staple of the German scene is Hofbrauhaus Newport. Boasting “craft bier of Bavarian king,” the lively restaurant and meeting place brews its drinks on site in Bavarian traditions dating back to 1589.

Newport is home to several new hotels, including a Hampton Inn & Suites and a luxury Aloft hotel. Meanwhile, New Riff Distillery has made tremendous progress on its new rickhouse in West Newport.

Set to steal the show is a 235-foot-tall Ferris wheel planned for Newport on the Levee. The $10 million project is being designed by St. Louis-based Koch Development and is similar to SkyWheel in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

The already attractive waterfront includes an iconic pedestrian-only Purple People Bridge. Built in 1886, the half-mile span across the Ohio River connects Newport to downtown Cincinnati and to walking-biking trails along the river in both states. Revelers enjoying a new “Party on the Purple” concert series that provides a music scene over the water might hear the famous World Peace Bell ringing a few blocks away. It is one of more than 20 massive Peace Bells around the world, and from 2000 to 2006 it was the largest swinging bell in the world.

Other water attractions include the BB Riverboats and Ride The Ducks Newport. The Ohio River attracts paddling enthusiasts from around the nation, most notably for Ohio River Paddlefest.

The historic John A. Roebling Bridge in Covington is a picturesque car and pedestrian thoroughfare that celebrated its 150th anniversary in summer 2017 with RoeblingFest at the Kentucky end of the famous suspension bridge.

Visitors to the prestigious top-floor Metropolitan Club in RiverCenter can enjoy stunning views of the Roebling and Cincinnati in the private business club.

Just down the street in quaint downtown Covington is the boutique Hotel Covington, which is made up of local partnerships to usher guests and visitors into the heart of the city through food, drink and craft.

One notable local favorite on the restaurant scene since 1942 is Walt’s Hitching Post in Fort Wright. And Northern Kentucky’s most award-winning restaurant and a Fort Mitchell landmark, the Greyhound Tavern, is a short hop from Cincinnati.

Event planners looking for just the right location in Northern Kentucky with views of Cincinnati often find the $2 million, 10,000-s.f. Drees Pavilion at Devou Memorial Overlook for stellar urban views in a peaceful setting.

For visitors who enjoy architecture, the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption in Covington is a must-see. The jaw-dropping basilica was the dream of the Most Reverend Camillus Paul Maes, third bishop of the Diocese of Covington. The project began in 1894 and ended in 1915 and is a notable art and architectural monument. The Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption is one of only 35 minor basilicas in the United States and contains noteworthy works from Covington artist Frank Duveneck from the early 1900s.

Across the river in Cincinnati, visitors can experience places like the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, Great American Ball Park and a bevy of other experiences – many of which are walkable and bikable from Northern Kentucky.

meetNKY | Northern Kentucky Convention and Visitors Bureau

50 East RiverCenter Blvd.,

Suite 200

Covington, KY 41011

(859) 261-4677


The primary mission of meetNKY is to serve as an economic development agency that positively impacts the Northern Kentucky economy through destination sales, destination marketing and visitor services. The tourism industry in NKY is a vibrant part of the regional visitor economy that generates more than $5 billion in economic impact and supports 77,000 jobs.


Ark Encounter

Williamstown – arkencounter.com

BB Riverboats

Newport – bbriverboats.com

Big Bone Lick State Park

Union – parks.ky.gov/parks/historicsites/big-bone-lick

Blue Licks Battlefield State Park

Carlisle – parks.ky.gov/parks/resortparks/blue_licks

Boone County Distilling

Independence – boonedistilling.com

Braxton Brewing Company

Covington – braxtonbrewing.com

Donna Salyers’ Fabulous Furs

Covington – fabulousfurs.com

Elk Creek Hunt Club

Owenton – elkcreekhuntclub.com

Elk Creek Vineyards

Owenton – elkcreekvineyards.com

Kentucky Speedway

Sparta – kentuckyspeedway.com

MainStrasse Village

Covington – mainstrasse.org

Neeley Family Distillery

Sparta – facebook.com/neeleyfamilydistillery

New Riff Distilling

Newport – newriffdistilling.com

Newport Aquarium

Newport – newportaquarium.com

Newport on the Levee

Newport – newportonthelevee.com

Northern Kentucky Back Roads Wine Trail

Camp Springs – stonebrookwinery.com/northern-ky-wine-trail

Old Pogue Distillery

Maysville – oldpogue.com

Purple People Bridge

Newport – purplepeoplebridge.com

Riverside Food Tours

Covington – riversidefoodtours.com

Second Sight Distillery

Ludlow – secondsightspirits.com

World Peace Bell

Newport – southbankpartners.com/world-peace-bell/history.aspx