Approaching the Distillery District from downtown Lexington, Ky., by car, I couldn’t miss the large black-and-red mural depicting what looks to be — depending on your perspective — a demented scuba diver, a man wearing a gas mask, or more menacingly, a prison inmate flashing what may or may not be a gang symbol. Beneath are scrawled the words, “Caution. Do not feed.”
I learned that the artwork, which stretches across one side of a warehouse, is a self-portrait by French muralist MTO, and the contorted hands spell out the artist’s name. Though some Lexingtonians believe the work is not exactly a warm and fuzzy addition to the city’s burgeoning public art scene, it seems appropriate as one of the key features of the city’s newest arts-and-entertainment corridor, the Distillery District.
Sandwiched between two historic bourbon distilleries — the now-defunct Old Tarr and the recently reopened James E. Pepper — the area is gritty rather than genteel, seedy rather than sanitized, urban rather than urbane. But it’s becoming a city hot spot.
So, just why has such a scruffy side of this famously refined city become the newest go-to destination, where every night locals and visitors alike scramble for seats in the smattering of spots that have opened in the past few years?
Chad Burns, a distiller at Barrel House Distilling Co., says it goes well beyond the Pure Blue Vodka and Devil John’s Moonshine that his company makes.
“On a deeper level, the appeal is in the revitalization of something that was once the lifeblood of Lexington,” he says.
It was indeed. By 1810, more than 100 distilleries operated in or near the city, and by the late 1800s, the two distilleries that bookend the current district produced some 36,000 barrels of bourbon annually.
Alas, in the years to follow, various economic downturns and the advent of Prohibition caused a decline in production and the once prominent district languished. Less than a decade ago, it was an urban eyesore, a blighted area of empty warehouses and abandoned buildings.
What a difference a decade and some thoughtful development plans have made. Today, Old Tarr, the region’s first registered distillery (1866), has been converted into the Manchester Music Hall, while James E. Pepper has reopened and for the first time in 60 years is producing bourbon.
Over the next few years, the distillery’s Rickhouse, where the barrels are aged, will be redeveloped into a complex of coffee shops, restaurants and retail that will play off the dynamics of the district’s rich past.
Dynamic is a good way to describe the radical renaissance that has made the Distillery District Lexington’s hippest ’hood — an area of industrial chic where baby boomers, Gen Xers and millennials congregate convivially.
They tour the Pepper Distillery, where for $20, they view the custom-made Vendome copper still; see and sniff the four fermenting vats, bubbling away like an out-of-control science experiment; sample “white dog” right out of the still, and end by sipping the finished product (bourbon and rye) in the tasting room.
If they prefer, they can taste their bourbon in a saloon-like building that was once the actual break room for employees of the Pepper Distillery.
They enjoy a meal at Middle Fork Kitchen in surroundings that feature exposed brick and steel girders, an open wood-fired grill and a bar that runs the length of the dining area; at Goodfellas Pizzeria, where one patron aptly described the breadsticks as being “as long as your arm,” or from one of the omnipresent food trucks.
The visitors belly up to the bar at Crank & Boom Ice Cream Lounge, which People magazine recently anointed one of the best ice cream parlors in America. “Bartenders,” clad in T-shirts with the slogan, “Here Comes the Boom,” offer them any of 18 flavors, including the bestseller, Bourbon and Honey, a combination of Buffalo Trace bourbon and a local honey.
Toa Green, whose business card identifies her as owner and Chief Happiness Officer, chose the Distillery District for Crank & Boom because she needed a location as nontraditional as her brand.
“We have a creek next to our parking lot and these crazy cool old buildings that had the exact right feel for what we were trying to do,” she explains.
The “creek” she is referring to is Town Branch, a fork of the Elkhorn River, which for the most part is buried beneath the city (plans for that are about to change over the next few years).
At the Distillery District, the creek emerges and wraps itself around the area like a sheltering gray-green arm. The best place to see it is over a mug of craft beer on the patio at Ethereal Brewing.
If it’s music you’re looking for, check out the Burl, housed in a restored Texaco fuel and oil distribution hub, where acts range from the arcane (Catawampus Universe, Steve’N’Seagulls) to the celebrity-fueled (actor Dennis Quaid and his band, the Sharks). Or head over to Manchester Music Hall, an 11,000-square-foot concert venue hosting regional and national bands.
A new era
Back at Barrel House Distilling, Chad Burns is busily churning out another batch of Devil John’s Moonshine. Looking somewhat devilish himself with glittering eyes and bushy black beard, he talks about how the past decade has seen what could best be described as a time capsule become part of a new era in Lexington.
“Night and day,” he says, referring to then and now. “We started out with distilling, added tastings and tours, and now have it all, including an onsite cocktail lounge, the Elkhorn Tavern, serving craft cocktails, craft beer and infused moonshine.”
Controversial art notwithstanding, the Distillery District has been a boon to Lexington, with additional redevelopment opportunities scheduled over the next decade.
But rest assured that the area’s boho chic feel will remain intact if those who flock here have their way. An Ethereal Brewing patron summed it up best.
“I don’t want the Distillery District to become all spit and polish,” he said. “A little grime is good.”