Looking into the stunning floor-to-ceiling windows you could see New Riff Distilling's impressive 60-foot still.
Looking out, you could see its unlikely origin.
The self-proclaimed "new kid on the block" of Kentucky bourbon wasn’t born from a bloodline of bootlegging or a stack of pre-Prohibition whiskey recipes like some of its more traditional competitors. Instead, the Northern Kentucky distillery's roots come from an iconic, warehouse-size retailer — The Party Source with the slogan "everything you need for a party except the guest."
It's so close to the distillery you could roll a bourbon barrel from one building to the next. Make no mistake, though, New Riff is very much about the spirits. It's not drawing in visitors with cheap party tricks or balloons from next door.
When the distillery's founders left the retail world for production, they did so with the intention of honoring Kentucky's bourbon heritage while putting their own unique spin on it.
"We’re not here to change the song of whiskey," our tour guide, Grover Arnold explained, as we stood in the gift shop. "We’re here to add our subtle riff to give you a better appreciation for the standard."
Over the next two hours, I saw firsthand how much that "new riff" has rippled through the distillery's development and inevitably to its bourbon.
'New riff on an old tradition'
New Riff opened in 2014, just two years before Senate Bill 11 passed, which opened the door for new distillery experiences and increased tourism.
You could say this new riff struck at just the right time.
That was evident as soon as I entered the doors and was met by a small tasting bar called "The Aquifer." There, guests can order spirit flights and their choice of cocktails made with New Riff’s spirits, which wouldn't have been possible six years ago before the law changed.
Now, bartenders can make you an Old Fashioned, a Manhattan or a Kentucky mule if you're in the mood for a classic. They wouldn’t be living up to their name, though, if they didn't have something more eclectic on the line-up. The “Okey Dokey Artichokey,” which is made from an artichoke infused with New Riff’s Kentucky Straight Rye, caught my attention.
According to the menu, it comes off a bit like a negroni. Who knew? But as delightfully curious as that sounded, I left the gift shop and followed our guide into the distillery itself for a tour.
Those floor-to-ceiling windows followed us all the way up to where the mash was cooking and the scent of warm, yeast hit you like someone was baking a loaf of bread. Arnold talked through the science of bourbon like you’d expect to hear at any other stop on the trail. Then he laughed about the time the team clogged up the equipment using an experimental oatmeal-based mash, like you very much wouldn’t hear anywhere else.
That "new riff on an old tradition" certainly kept things interesting, even from a production standpoint.
From there we stepped briefly into the barrel room where the new make fills barrels roughly 35 to 40 times a day. A strong, familiar sense of vanilla hit my nose, which Arnold said was just one big tease to New Riff’s other campus where all the barrels are stored.
What happens at the distillery is really only about 10% to 15% of the bourbon's journey, but he says he's careful never to say that within an earshot of the distillers.
"The hard part begins when we get that new make that’s rushing in the stillhouse now, and we get it in that barrel and begin to age it, and wait and hope we got it right," he said. "That’s where it gets scary."
Mother Nature, essentially, handles the rest of the production magic from there.
"Close the doors, kill the lights and crack a window, and wait four years and hope you get it right," Arnold said. "But the good news is we got it pretty damn right, with those double gold medals shortly after our release."
Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait another three years to see what that meant.
Our little group followed him from there into what New Riff calls the “Tower Room” with a rooftop view of Newport. There, Arnold poured us each two bourbon, two rye and two gin samples to try.
I still had that signature New Riff butterscotch nose lingering in my senses and its broad mouthfeel with a hint of vanilla and rye on my palate when Jay Erisman, one of the company’s founders, tracked me down after the tasting for a chat.
The very room we were sitting in and its birds-eye view would have been a novelty in bourbon tourism just 15 years ago. One of the perks of being a new-age distillery in Kentucky a decade ago was having the chance to build the distillery in a way that welcomed the community. Today, The Tower Room occasionally doubles as a larger outlet for that cozy The Aquifer Bar and those artichoke cocktails I mentioned earlier, but for the most part, its served as an event space and a tasting room since the distillery opened in 2014.
Erisman laughed as he told me this. When New Riff first opened The Tower Room, the team thought "who’d want to get married in a distillery."
Turns out, a lot of people.
Now that the distillery has established itself as a destination and the laws have evolved to meet Kentucky's tourism boom, he has a different vision for the space.
A place to try new things, revisit old favorites
Distilleries across the board struggled with operating experiences during the height of the coronavirus pandemicshutdown, but now since it has waned some, he’s excited about the new ventures. Once New Riff closes out the last few weddings it has on the books, he’s eager to recast The Tower Room’s role at the distillery into something that resembles a watering hole.
Weddings have been fun, Erisman said, but the space should help connect visitors to the whiskey. That doesn’t necessarily happen when they're ordering in cases of domestic beer because that’s what the bride’s uncle likes to drink. This wouldn’t be a 2 a.m. kind of joint, he said, but it makes sense that the best New Riff cocktails would come from the people who know the spirits most intimately.
I wondered if that intimacy was how they landed on that artichoke negroni downstairs, but instead, he took me in a completely different ― almost eyebrow-raising ― direction when I asked him what his favorite cocktail was.
It would be a "heretical" answer in Louisville, but he's not from Louisville. He’s from Northern Kentucky, and so he enjoys mint juleps with … rye.
New Riff’s Bottled In Bond Rye has a unique, almost spearmint property to it, he explained. It’s not like an Altoid or toothpaste, but a crisp, refreshing mint.
The tasting notes pair well with a fresh-cut sprig of mint in a julep, and so this heresy is his drink of choice in the hottest months of the year.
“I drink them all summer long and I don’t just drink them around the horse race, thank you very much,” he explained, with a knowledgeable insistence. “Rye mint juleps are gorgeous.”
He spoke so passionately about it, that I nearly believed him.
There's another component, too, that goes well beyond heretical mint juleps, that curious artichoke negroni or the best New Riff Old Fashioned in town.
When I asked him to imagine the Tower Room five years from now, he turned our conversation back to everything that was waiting to come out of the warehouse and all of the smaller successes that have led up to this point.
Not everyone had a chance to try the "winter whiskey" that New Riff’s unusual clunky oatmeal mash made, but that doesn't mean it depleted the stock entirely.
You certainly won't see its bourbon finished in sherry barrels on every bar in Louisville, but that doesn’t mean New Riff won't have it on its shelf.
Sure, the distillery has been bringing in double gold medals with its four-year bourbon from the World Spirits Competition in San Francisco, but the oldest spirits in the rickhouses are just eight years old at this point. If you add another five years to those first barrels — which puts them at 13 years — those smooth New Riff notes are only going to get smoother.
Eventually, he sees The Tower Room as a bourbon library where the new riffs live on.
And not unlike a music library, that bar could be a place where bourbon fans can try new things and revisit old favorites.
Features columnist Maggie Menderski writes about what makes Louisville, Southern Indiana and Kentucky unique, wonderful, and occasionally, a little weird. If you've got something in your family, your town or even your closet that fits that description — she wants to hear from you. Say hello at firstname.lastname@example.org or 502-582-4053. Follow along on Instagram and Twitter @MaggieMenderski.
Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour: Northern Region
WHAT: This distillery hights Northern Kentucky's Civil War-era heritage of bourbon making. The modern distillery sits on the site of the former Petersburg Distillery, which opened in 1833. It addition to its bourbon, Boone County Distilling is known for its award-winning bourbon cream.
WHERE: 10601 Toebeen Drive, Independence
HOURS: Tuesday-Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed Monday
MORE INFORMATION: boonedistilling.com
WHAT: This distillery is known for its deep bootlegging history in the Eastern Kentucky mountains. It makes moonshine and whiskey in addition to bourbon.
WHERE: 4360 Highway 1130, Sparta
HOURS: Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday, 1-6 p.m.
COST: $20. Lasts anywhere from one hour to one-and-a-half hours.
MORE INFORMATION: neeleyfamilydistillery.com
WHAT: Founded in 2014, New Riff is led by a team of corporate refugees ranging from craft beer to politics and more. New Riff crafts a range of whiskeys, from Bourbon, Rye, and eventually Malted Rye and a host of specialty recipes, as well as Kentucky Wild Gin.
WHERE: 24 Distillery Way, Newport
HOURS: Wednesday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed Monday-Tuesday
MORE INFORMATION: newriffdistilling.com
WHAT: The Old Pogue Distillery is located on the same grounds where the historic H.E. Pogue Distillery was located and drew its water. The Pogue Family produces small-batch Rye and Bourbon whisky using the same ingredient combinations and methods found in the recipes of their ancestors.
WHERE: 705 Germantown Road, Maysville
HOURS: Appointments required. Tours are available Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.
MORE INFORMATION: oldpogue.com
WHAT: This distillery was founded by two Northern Kentucky natives who one worked in state productions in Las Vegas. The whole setup is highly eclectic and themed after fortune tellers. Second Sight is best known for its run and bourbon barrel-aged run. The distillery also makes bourbon and a sweet hazelnut liquor called Queen Mab. It also operates a cocktail bar in its lounge, open Friday-Sunday.
WHERE: 301 Elm St., Ludlow
HOURS: Friday-Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Monday-Thursday.
MORE INFORMATION: secondsightspirits.com
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Kentucky Bourbon Trail: New Riff Distilling offers a unique spin