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Lexington’s historic Distillery District gets a new lease on life

By Patti Nickell Tribune News Service

Approaching the Distillery District from downtown Lexington, Kentucky, motorists are taken aback by 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. Underneath are scrawled the words, “Caution. Do not feed.”

What it is is a controversial self-portrait by the French muralist MTO, and for some Lexingtonians, not exactly a warm and fuzzy addition to the city’s burgeoning public art scene. The mural, however, seems entirely appropriate as one of the key features of Lexington’s newest arts-and-entertainment corridor, the Distillery District.

Sandwiched between two historic bourbon distilleries – the now defunct Old Tarr and the recently re-opened James E. Pepper – the area doesn’t exactly scream tourist hot spot. It’s gritty rather than genteel, seedy rather than sanitized, urban rather than urbane.

So, just why has such a scruffy side of this famously refined city become the newest go-to destination?

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 a languishing of the once prominent district. Less than a decade ago, it was an urban eyesore.

What a difference a decade has made. Today, Old Tarr, the region’s first registered distillery (1866), has been converted into the Manchester Music Hall, while James E. Pepper has re-opened and for the first time in 60 years is once again 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.

Radical renaissance

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 alike congregate.

They tour the Pepper Distillery, where for $20, they view the custom-made Vendome copper still; see and sniff the four fermenting vats; 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 lots of 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 described the breadsticks as being “as long as your arm,” or from one of the omnipresent food trucks such as the cleverly named Gastro Gnomes.

They 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.

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 non-traditional 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. The hand-painted white signage identifies the brewery as “a blurring between science and magic.”

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.

Looking ahead

Back at Barrel House Distilling, Chad Burns is busily churning out another batch of Devil John’s Moonshine. Looking somewhat devilish himself with his glittering eyes and bushy black beard, he talks about how over the past decade he 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.”

The recent re-opening of the Pepper Distillery, for both production and public tours, has given the District another boost. According to its owner, Amir Peay, the decades-long project will take the area to another level, serving as both a boon to Lexington and a beacon to other parts of the country that have run-down industrial complexes.

It remains to be seen whether the Distillery District will become a beacon to the rest of the country, but here in Lexington, it is both a boon and a boom, with additional redevelopment and infill opportunities scheduled over the next decade.

But, rest assured – 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.”

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