Bourbon gets top billing in new NKY 'signature event'

We’re living in the age of the big event. From Oktoberfest-Zinzinnati to the Flying Pig Marathon to Riverfest, and so many gatherings in between, Greater Cincinnati has dozens of festivals, celebrations and occasions that draw people by the tens of thousands.

With an announcement this week, Northern Kentucky served notice that 2019 will be the debut year for what it expects to be its most ambitious addition yet to the area’s roster of annual big happenings.

On the weekend of Oct. 4-5, the first Kentucky’s Edge Bourbon Conference & Festival will become reality, with a goal of giving Northern Kentucky its own identity in the state’s booming bourbon culture.

“Visitors can now see that there’s no doubt about it – Northern Kentucky truly is the edge of bourbon country,” said NKY Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Brent Cooper in announcing the new event at The Grand Banquet Hall in Covington.

“So to celebrate Northern Kentucky’s distinguished distilling past and its extremely bright future, we are here today to officially launch a signature event pairing bourbon with all things Kentucky. And this bourbon event and conference will take place not in a field or some remote location, but instead in locations all over Covington and Newport, showcasing this great region we all call home.”

That last part about location which Cooper brought up is particularly key.

The heart of bourbon country has traditionally been seen as just to the south and west of Northern Kentucky, concentrated in a triangle between Louisville, Bardstown and Lexington. The 20-year-old Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which features 14 major distilleries all in that region, is now surpassing the one-million visitor mark annually. The logical assumption is that only a small percentage of those drawn to big-name bourbon are including Northern Kentucky as part of their itinerary.

In 2012, an additional component was added called the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour with another 13 smaller distilleries, including three that are in Northern Kentucky – New Riff Distillery in Newport, the Boone County Distilling Co. in Independence and the Old Pogue Distillery in Maysville. And Northern Kentucky itself got in the game just over a year ago with the Northern Kentucky Convention and Visitors Bureau’s launch of the B-Line, a bourbon-centric collection of destinations which includes the three distilleries just mentioned, along with the Neeley Family Distillery in Sparta, and 11 bars and restaurants that have made an emphasis on bourbon part of their appeal.

Northern Kentucky is doing the work to position itself as the northern gateway to bourbon country, and local leaders believe the Kentucky’s Edge event will be the right avenue for increasing the strength of that identity.

“We wanted to do something that binds us with Kentucky, and the history of this region with bourbon is something we have here that Ohio doesn’t,” said Kevin Canafax, the vice president for regional public affairs at Fidelity Investments and a co-founder of this event. “From there, it kind of all fell into place – this would be centered around bourbon but include all things Kentucky. We’re at the edge of the state and part of a major metropolitan region, but we need to celebrate that Kentucky aspect and have it be part of our identity.”

The conversations that led to establishing the new event happened about a year ago – appropriately enough, while enjoying some bourbon at Bourbon Haus 1841 in Covington – when Canafax and fellow co-founder Bill Donabedian were brainstorming with John Stanton, the director of external affairs for Kenton County.

“There were two aspects we thought that would be important to a bourbon event,” says Donabedian, who co-founded the Brandemonium event with Canafax, and also has been the driving force behind such successes as the MidPoint Musical Festival and the Bunbury Music Festival. “The first was to leverage all the great spaces and businesses in Northern Kentucky. We didn’t want an event that put up fences. We wanted an event that drove residents and tourists to all the great spaces, shops, bars and restaurants in Northern Kentucky. The second was to make it accessible.”

After continued discussion, they hit upon a perfectly pithy way to describe what they believed would work: “SXSW for bourbon.”

In those 13 characters, they’ve given interested parties a clear reference point of how they envision the potential for the new event.

For the unfamiliar, the initials above are shorthand for South By Southwest, the annual mega-event in Austin, Texas, which started as a music festival but now is one of the world’s largest gatherings of those engaged in creative pursuits. Last year, more than 400,000 people attended.

No one expects 400,000 people to descend on Northern Kentucky at this point, but staking an identity with a high-profile, multi-faceted event increases the region’s chances to tap farther into a booming part of Kentucky’s business lifeblood. More than 95 percent of the world’s bourbon is produced in state, and the overall impact on Kentucky’s economy was recently calculated at $8.6 billion annually.

Kentucky’s Edge aims to give a focus for this region’s bourbon identity that connoisseurs and business partners may currently be unaware of. It will combine the historic charms of the riverfront communities with everything else Greater Cincinnati has to offer – not the least of which is a highly rated and convenient airport only minutes away from any venue in the event.

Programming aims to run a wide gamut. A free music festival on the riverfront is part of the plan. Covington’s MainStrasse Village will host a Kentucky artisan’s market. The Northern Kentucky Convention Center will be the site of a bourbon conference. Smaller entertainment options will be scheduled to go along with bourbon tastings and pairings at individual establishments.

Throughout it all, the Kentucky’s Edge weekend aims to create that sense of inclusion for all of Northern Kentucky’s communities and residents. “What’s going to make this special and different from other events is the amount of participation we’re expecting,” said Cooper. “We’re going to be lining streets with art-decorated bourbon barrels and telling our story. With the theme of this being ‘Kentucky’s Edge,’ bourbon is Kentucky’s edge and we feel like this is a perfect fit.”

October is also one of people’s favorite times of year for festivals. It is also an important month in the bourbon industry.

“October is when all of the major distilleries do big releases, so to have a bourbon event in October is really a natural time to talk about the importance of the bourbon industry in the commonwealth,” said Julie Kirkpatrick, who helps oversee the B-Line program in her role as the vice president of sales and marketing for the Convention and Visitors Bureau. “And then when we found out that the Blink festival would be happening the weekend after (in Cincinnati), we thought this was a natural way to tie into both sides of the river and really capture people’s interests for two straight weeks.”

Tickets for the first Kentucky’s Edge Bourbon Conference & Festival will go on sale beginning March 1, with hotel and ticket packages becoming available then. Individual event tickets will follow in late March and early April. For information, visit

Read more articles by Carey Hoffman.

As a Cincinnatian for almost all his life, Carey Hoffman has written about numerous subjects involving almost every Greater Cincinnati neighborhood. He enjoys history — both local and beyond — reading, anything to do with golf, most things related to basketball, and all things that make Cincinnati a more interesting and better place.