A century ago, spirits flowed freely in the Tri-State. From Maysville to Petersburg to Newport, Covington and Cincinnati, families made small fortunes distilling whiskey, rum, bourbon and gin along the Ohio River before Prohibition hit in 1920.
Craft distilleries have finally come back home, with five opening in Greater Cincinnati since 2012, and are riding the resurgence of craft spirits and record-breaking liquor sales. The Ohio Department of Commerce reported more than $1 billion in liquor sales in Ohio for 2015, and a 2014 economic study by the University of Louisville reported Kentucky’s distilling industry contributed $3 billion to the state's gross product.
“It is a rediscovery of American traditions and a rediscovery of flavor,” said Jay Erisman, vice president and self-proclaimed “whisky man” at New Riff Distilling in Bellevue, of the explosive growth.
Craft distillery Old Pogue led the way when it opened in Maysville in early 2012.
What Was Old Is New
Old Pogue not only helped pioneer the craft distilling movement in the region, it is also a reflection of the heritage being reclaimed here, according to co-owner Peter Pogue.
“My great-great-great-grandfather started distilling back in 1876,” said Pogue.
Pogue’s grandfather, H.E. Pogue III, was the last family member to operate the original distillery. The elder Pogue sold limited amounts of whiskey for medicinal purposes during Prohibition until the federal government consolidated it in 1926 with other barreled spirits for closer control in Louisville. H.E. Pogue sold the distillery after Prohibition ended in 1933 and eventually moved his family to Fort Thomas.
In 2009, Peter Pogue and his brothers were able to buy back their grandfather's homestead in Maysville, where they opened their current distillery three years later.
Peter Pogue today views Prohibition as the federal government’s “great mistake.” It put families like his out of business and, in turn, decimated towns like Maysville, which once had three distilleries. The original family recipes and meticulous notes kept by H.E. Pogue survived, though, and became the blueprints for the current Old Pogue.
“My father was kind of against it,” Peter Pogue recalled of when he and his brothers first discussed reviving the brand. “My grandfather actually made my father and uncle promise they would never go into the distilling business.”
That number includes Boone County Distilling Co., the first still to operate in that county in more than 100 years.
“Our vision is to help tell the stories of the great men who built a bourbon empire in Northern Kentucky,” said co-owner Jack Wells about his 5,000-square-foot distillery, which opened in December.
The Ohio Department of Commerce reported the number of active craft-distillery licenses jumped from 14 in 2012 to 33 in 2015.
“What you are seeing is a lot of bright and creative distillers working within the definition of certain spirits,” Peter Pogue said. “That’s pretty exciting.”
Old Pogue has worked with many of those new distillers, reflecting a communal atmosphere in what can be a risky business to get into. Young distillers must plan years in advance if they want to make today’s most popular spirits, rye whiskey and bourbon. It takes at least two years to barrel age whiskey and four years or more for bourbon.
“Before, everyone was in competition,” Peter Pogue said. “Now, everyone is in collaboration.”
The Next Wave
Carus Waggoner and Jeff Couch, longtime friends and Conner High School graduates, and Chris Courts are part of that new, creative wave of distillers that Peter Pogue described.
Last year, Couch and Waggoner opened Second Sight Spirits, in Ludlow, Kentucky, with a craft rum. Courts, a home brewer, started crafting a corn whiskey part time in August for Northside Distilling Co., located inside a white garage near Spring Grove Cemetery. He quit his job with a video conferencing company in October when Northside’s owners, Chris Leodonas and Josh Koch, asked him to become their full-time head distiller.
Couch, a mechanical engineer, and Waggoner, an industrial designer, were working on sets for Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas when they were introduced to craft spirits. Waggoner said he and Couch “met and worked with a nice, sweet Romanian” whom they helped establish the Las Vegas Distillery. That experience fueled the pair's decision to move back to Northern Kentucky to start Second Sight.
“We knew that craft distilling was really hot out on the coasts and know it will catch on here,” Waggoner said.
Waggoner and Couch also put the showmanship skills they learned at Cirque into their small storefront at 301b Elm St. They designed a still to look like a dime-store fortune teller’s turban and hired a copper smith to fabricate it from scrap. Waggoner continues to modify the appearance of the still, which is prominently displayed in the store, and hopes to make it as interactive for visitors as a real vaudeville fortune-telling machine.
“We wanted to utilize our strengths,” Waggoner said.
Second Sight now sells a bourbon-barrel aged and spiced rum throughout Greater Cincinnati, alongside the white rum it launched with. In March, the owners also plan to distribute moonshine crafted by new business partner Dan Gibson. They continue to work separate jobs three days a week while they distill current products and experiment with their next phase: barreling bourbon and rye whiskeys.
Courts also revels in the challenges of craft distilling. He works most days alone manning Northside Distilling’s operations, from making the mash base for his whiskey to actually distilling.
“I've got mash on my shoes most days,” Courts said. “And that’s part of the fun. When you can dial in and fine-tune by hand, you get a better product.”
He also contacts area restaurants to get them to request Northside's whiskey from state distributors. Courts said his distillery plans to expand production into areas such as moonshine, vodka and other whiskeys.
Courts visited Second Sight recently and said he was excited to see “everyone is doing their own thing.” He believes the growing distilling scene is feeding into a “youthful community enjoying something a little different at the moment," which is also reflected in bars and restaurants.
“I think what’s cool is Cincinnati is putting out a lot of culture right now,” Courts said.
New Riff’s Erisman said craft distilling is part of a larger cultural revolution taking place across the country, with roots as far back as the 1960s. He cited Julia Child’s 1960s cookbook “The Art of Cooking” as an example. Child sparked a shift toward high-quality, creative consumption that spread to the restaurant industry, home brewing in the early 1980s and craft distilling today, said Erisman. That progression is an evolution of the American palate, he added.
As the largest of the five regional distilleries, New Riff’s owners put money behind Erisman’s sentiment. When New Riff opened, it began distilling gin and introduced a barrel-aged gin late last year. As its two-year anniversary nears in May, the Bellevue distillery and event center is accelerating expansion plans, even though its first barrels of aged whiskey and bourbon won’t be ready for sale until July 2018.
Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers' Association, which also lobbies state government for more favorable distillery laws, sees New Riff’s success as a prime example of craft distilling’s ongoing growth in the region.
“It’s not slowing down," Gregory said. “I have a waiting list of 18 distillers (wanting to join KDA) that are under construction.”
Gregory believes the biggest boom for craft distilleries could actually lie ahead, especially in the Commonwealth, where some legislators are pushing to change what he calls “archaic alcohol laws.” Kentucky is currently considering legislation that would allow distilleries to sell craft cocktails rather than the one-ounce tastings currently permitted, and nine bottles of spirits to visitors instead of the current limit of two. The change would help distillers to grow local business by opening taprooms like their craft brewing counterparts, Gregory said.
The increase in direct sales also would benefit larger, more established distillers seeking tourist dollars.
“Our statistics show 70 percent of the people who visit our distillery are from out of state,” Peter Pogue said. “When they come to visit us they often say, ‘We really like your product. We’d like to buy a case.’ We have to say no. The legislation would be a boost to tourism and the economy.”