Bourbon Life in Cincinnati

Pop Culture
The Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar has just one specialty: bourbon. (Courtesy Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar)

If you’re planning a Kentucky bourbon trip, Cincinnati is only an hour and a half away from most distilleries and has a strong whiskey scene of its own.

Where to stay?

For lodging, the best options are on the Ohio side of Cincinnati.

The 21C Cincinnati is the sister hotel to the popular 21C Louisville and 21C Lexington. Also an art museum with rotating galleries, the 21C boasts a cocktail terrace that overlooks downtown and the region’s rolling hills. The rooms are so nice, spacious, and comfortable they make you want to prop your feet up, order room service from the farm-to-fire restaurant Metropole, and never leave.

A room at the 21c Cincinnati (Courtesy 21C Museum Hotel Cincinnati)

Where to Eat?

Once you’ve checked in and settled down, your journey must begin standing next to a bathtub with the words “Since 1861. Arnold’s Bar & Grill.” The tub is symbolic of the restaurant’s Prohibition-era owner, Hugo Arnold, who allegedly made bathtub gin and sold illegal liquor to thirsty customers. Built in the late 1830s, the building is a slice of Midwestern Americana and showcases an old bar that commands the city’s first right of refusal on the allocated bourbons. The eclectic menu gives you an inside glimpse of Cincinnati cuisine, with noodles in its chili and the local meat-and-grain sausage called “goetta.”

For dinner, there’s nothing quite like a thick steak from Jeff Ruby’s, a Cincinnati icon. The traditional family style dinner is a meat eater’s delight: Go with the dry aged, bone-in “hatchet,” 30 ounces of ribeye heaven.  While Jeff Ruby’s has vegetable options, vegetarians might want to go somewhere else; the scent of searing cow flesh might be too tempting to resist. Jeff Ruby’s offers private barrel selections of Woodford Reserve, Blanton’s, and 14-year-old George Dickel.

Where to Drink?

The Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar is the must-visit establishment that put this area back on the map as a whiskey region. The Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar has more than 400 bourbons, a couple Canadian whiskeys and a strong selection of corn and rye whiskeys. To work here, the bartenders must pass a 250-question oral test that covers history, brands, and be able to hold a conversation with a newbie or a whiskey geek. There are no TVs, no Scotches, and no food. The focus is on the bourbon, as God intended.

For the night cap, check out Japp’s, the sister bar to The Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar. In the beautiful Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, Japp’s once met the demand of the Cincinnati wig wearers. The refurbished spot —all fake hair removed—is now a quaint cocktail bar that is a haven for jazz bands.

Must-See Distillery

If any distillery has the capability to move beyond the craft-distilling label it’s New Riff. Just minutes from Cincinnati, the New Riff Distillery boasts a 60-foot-tall, 24-inch in diameter column still surrounded by glass windows, so onlookers can gawk at its shimmering copper beauty.

A renowned businessman, owner Ken Lewis convinced the local zoning commission to allow him to bust down a levy to build a distillery, replacing the Ohio River flood protection measure with a much-better flood wall.

New Riff just started selling its bottled-in-bond bourbon and will be releasing its bottled-in-bond rye later this year.

It’s one of the most beautiful distilleries in the country. You must check it out.

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