If you’re looking for something different, get off the beaten path.
That’s not exactly a phrase most Chambers of Commerce would consider to describe their community, but it is a pretty apt description of where Ludlow is, both on the map and in terms of its business community.
The town around the river’s bend to the west of Covington, Newport and downtown Cincinnati is morphing into a new phase. Where the main drag of Elm Street was largely deserted a decade ago, there now are a new wave of eclectic businesses that have taken root.
Two of the most prominent, with the shared attribute of making their own small-batch alcohol, are Bircus Brewing Co. and Second Sight Spirits. Both are in the process of expanding their existing spaces to add to what they already offer.
Bircus has just finished an extensive long-term renovation of the former Ludlow Theatre by opening up a 7,000 square-foot taproom, allowing them to combine circus acts, other entertainment, beer and (soon) food in their unique space.
Second Sight, a craft distillery that makes bourbon and rums, is in the process of adding a lounge area, which will expand its capacity for guests from the current 15 to a capacity of 94, while also adding a stage area for entertainment.
The expansion won’t be fully complete until April, but it will be open and in use for perhaps the biggest nightlife event on Ludlow’s calendar for the year, the second annual Cabin Fever Music and Arts Festival on Feb. 23. More than 20 bands and musical acts and 10 visual artist are lined up for an event that will include virtually every business in Ludlow.
“We moved in nine years ago with my circus, Circus Mojo, and there was not a lot going on, at all,” says Paul Miller, the owner and operator of Bircus Brewing, and himself a former clown with Ringling Bros. Circus. “In 2009, at the height of the economic crisis, that’s when we bought this old movie theater in Ludlow. And it’s been a wild ride ever since.”
Miller points to all the growth that’s gone on as Ludlow has heated up. His neighbors now include not only Second Sight, but also several art galleries, the eclectic Folk School Coffee Parlor that features both art and music, a total of five drinking establishments, several tattoo artists and other unusual destinations such as the Northern Kentucky Fencing Academy (upstairs from Second Sight) and the Northern Kentucky Martial Arts Academy.
Some have used the slang term “hipbillies,” a combination of hipster and hillbilly that doesn’t totally fit on either count, to describe many of the people drawn to the current Ludlow scene.
“It’s been a real magnet for a certain kind of person, someone who is drawn by the art and the music,” says Carus Waggoner, who co-owns Second Sight along with partner Rick Couch.
The partners are originally from the area, but developed a reputation for building elaborate sets and staging, and eventually found themselves in Las Vegas working for Cirque du Soliel. They returned to the area and, after looking at options, bought distillery equipment and opened Second Sight in 2014. It was an oddly appropriate choice – Waggoner’s great-grandfather was a moonshiner in West Virginia, while Couch’s great-grandfather was a sheriff down in Hazard County, Ky., who chased people like Waggoner’s great-grandfather.
Most of their on-site guests to this point at Second Sight have been those who have taken the tour of their production facility and ended the visit with a tasting session. But the visual has always been an emphasis.
Their space was already ornate, but they brought in a friend, Jason Curtis of Curtis Creative, to add even more character to their expansion. The existing still looks like a giant Zoltar machine, the mechanical fortune teller widely remembered as being central to the movie “Big.” With Curtis, they did a 3D scan of one of their friends, had it created out of pink foam and then fiber-glassed the exterior, so that a figurine can be added to the display. Couch is also designing a card dispenser, so that guests will be able to get their fortune directly from the still.
“Visiting Second Sight should be an engaging and unique experience -- we’re going to have several interactive engagements. Second Sight’s vision is quite literally, ‘the future,’ and the future is in Kentucky Bourbon -- so bringing in some of those fortune-telling and bourbon-based elements is key to engaging our patrons in a new way,” Waggoner says.
Just like Second Sight, you’ll never know what could be ahead of you if you make a Bircus visit in their new space.
For instance, if you ducked in for a drink last Sunday, you would have seen the former theater populated by 40 members of an area bike club playing bike polo, which resulted in one of the best Sundays yet for Bircus.
“It was just fantastic, because it was authentic,” says Miller. “It wasn’t something marketers or a think tank came up with. It was just a bunch of artists and doers. They were like, ‘Hey, you want to do this?’ and I’m like ‘Yeah!’ Everybody had fun, nobody got hurt, we drank some beer, they set it all up, they cleaned it all up. Everybody wins. It’s hard to find ‘everybody wins’ solutions. But that’s how the circus train gets loaded. Everybody works together. Everybody loads the train. That’s the philosophy we really work to push.”
(If you would like to see what a visit to Bircus Brewing can be like, return to our NKYThrives.com home page and scroll down below our stories to the video section, where a performance of the popular regional band The Josephines playing alongside a collection of circus performers can be viewed.)
Miller has a natural enthusiasm for his projects that is hard to resist. For instance, in order to finance their most recent growth efforts, the became the first brewery in America to get registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission so they could make a $500,000 offering to smaller investors. That capital has helped them continue to move forward, including financing some of the work needed on the theater conversion.
Miller’s Circus Mojo troupe performs all over town, but those same performers now have a base to work from, while providing the craft brewery with some of the most unique entertainment options anywhere. Through Circus Mojo, he’s been able to bring circus performers from 31 different countries to Ludlow. He compares it to how baseball develops talent through a minor-league system, with his venue being a stop for young performers to get known and work on their act as they build a profile in the circus world. “I’ve literally had to get five different kinds of visas for them,” he says. “They come from Antigua, Australia, The Sudan, literally all over the world.”
That goes along with 12 different beer offerings within Bircus Brewing. The changes also include turning their former tasting room into a kitchen, with their primary partner being a venture called Dada Smokes, a barbecue company that has been part of Newport’s Incubator Kitchen Collective program. They should be coming aboard as a food option for patrons on a regular basis when the kitchen is completed in the next few months. Bircus also has food trucks that visit and, being circus-oriented, always has free popcorn on hand (except it's never free at traveling circuses.)
Like many of those around him in Ludlow, Miller sees Bircus Brewing moving boldly ahead.
“We’ve got this huge Cabin Fever Festival coming up,” Miller says. “Bootsy Collins is going to be bringing his spaceship right into our theater, and he’s going to throw a dance party. It’s going to be a tremendous party.”