The Next Lex

The historic heritage of Lexington, Kentucky, makes room for innovative passion in the form of beer, art and community-based businesses

WORDS Jill K. Robinson
January 2017
It’s difficult to ignore royalty. The rolling blue-green fields and miles of white fence in Lexington, Kentucky’s Bluegrass Country are only hints as to what I see when I edge closer. There’s no way to sneak up on the supreme athletes that notice me, even before I get out of my car. Arched necks propel faces in my direction, and dark eyes watch every move I make as I approach the fence, flat hand extended for a velvety-nosed sniff of approval.

The elegant equine superstars of the region are the reason visitors are drawn to Kentucky Horse Park, Keeneland Race Course and a handful of farms that are home to champions of the past, present and future. With more than 400 horse farms in the region, Lexington is known as the Horse Capital of the World, and it has produced some of the most legendary animals in history.

While his racing days may be over, American Pharoah is living the life in retirement at Coolmore America’s Ashford Stud. The bay colt’s astounding success at winning the Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2015 makes him the only horse to have won the “Grand Slam” of racing. Now that Horse Country, a new tour company, has added Coolmore to its list of available farms to visit, fans have a chance to get a closer look at the king.

A heritage of Bluegrass Country horses and bourbon lures many to Lexington, and it’s easy to plan an itinerary that never detours from those popular features. Locals, though, do not confine themselves to these traditions. Street art, food culture and a craft-beer scene have exploded here, and while visitors can still honor the historic highlights, Lexington’s passion for innovation leads the modern-day charge. 
My first choice in lexington may have been the horses, but that’s partly because it’s morning and the bars aren’t open yet. The motto of Lexington’s Brewgrass Trail asks followers to “Respect the bourbon. Drink the beer.” The city is quickly becoming the center of the state’s craft-beer industry, and thirsty visitors are seeking out locally made beers in addition to samples of the classic bourbons of six of Kentucky’s most popular distilleries (all of which are within 30 minutes of the city center).

The eight breweries listed on the trail showcase the city’s love affair with craft brewing. While the region is home to master distillers, it’s also increasingly becoming home to master brewers, and the Brewgrass Trail Passport allows beer lovers to track their progress tasting local brews across town. I’m not one to count and compare my number of stamps in a traditional passport, but here, I am determined to get all eight stamps in my Brewgrass Passport.

Beer and bourbon work together at the Alltech -Lexington Brewing and Distilling Co. Among a stack of bourbon barrels, I sip a glass of Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, which has aged for up to six weeks in a charred-oak bourbon barrel. Next on my sipping list (and also barrel-aged) is Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Stout.

On the campus of the old James E. Pepper distillery in Lexington’s Distillery District, Ethereal Brewing turns its focus on Belgian farmhouse and American craft beers, plus the funkier side of farmhouse brewing with sour beers. Ethereal has a “dedicated yeast lab” and a chemist who helps with the brewing process, and both make the brewery stand out. Despite also hosting a few taps with visitor brews, the majority is pure Ethereal, from Saison to IPA to Belgian Dubbel.

Of the 24 taps in Country Boy Brewing and Taproom, 12 are dedicated Country Boy taps, all with quirky names like Shotgun Wedding, Cliff Jumper, Half Way Home and Cougar Bait. There are also the occasional beers with local fruits, vegetables and hops. One of my immediate favorites is the Jalapeño Smoked Porter.

West Sixth Brewing creates high-quality craft beer and works to support the local community at the same time. Its “Sixth for a Cause” events focus on a different nonprofit each month, to which it gives 6 percent of sales. (West Sixth also gives 6 percent of its net profits back to charities every year.) As I sip my drink in the beer garden, members of the West Sixth Running Club chat next to me. “We run on Tuesday nights, then come back here for beer and a pretzel,” says one. Along with the running club, West Sixth has yoga classes, a bike club, game nights and occasional science lectures. 
Beer is only one of the ways that lexington is expanding its culture. From the 12-mile Legacy Trail that meanders through downtown and ends at the Kentucky Horse Park, to public art murals scattered throughout town, to neighborhoods with new community-minded businesses, Lexington honors its heritage while ensuring progressive change for the city.

West Sixth is one of a handful of community-focused businesses that are tucked into the Bread Box. In this redevelopment of the old Rainbo Bread Factory — occupying one block on Lexington’s Sixth Street — are varied businesses working to make the city a better place. The building served as a bakery for more than a century, but upon its reinvention, it now houses a distillery, a brewing company, coffee roasters, a bike shop, a farm-to-table restaurant and an indoor aquaponics food-production organization.

I check the tilapia tanks at FoodChain, where tiny fish are raised. The nonprofit raises tilapia indoors and filters the water from the tanks to irrigate the herbs and lettuces it grows. Next door, Smithtown Seafood is one of the links in FoodChain. Part of every dollar spent at Smithtown works to benefit FoodChain’s mission of educating Lexington citizens about sustainable agriculture, food production and smart food choices. I make sure my lunch at Smithtown Seafood pays off, choosing the Tilapia Singapore dish. My local tilapia is seasoned with Szechuan salt and served with tasty pickled vegetables, FoodChain microgreens, mint, cilantro and Thai basil.

Back in the Distillery District, my earlier visit to Ethereal Brewing was just one stop among the new additions to the old James E. Pepper distillery campus. When the distillery was built here in 1879, it was the largest bourbon distillery in the United States. Now it stands as a National Historic Landmark, but it is also the birthplace of modern Lexington businesses, from Ethereal to the Middle Fork Kitchen Bar to the Barrel House Distilling Co. It also made way for Crank & Boom Ice Cream Lounge, aka the Break Room bar, which has a deck overlooking Town Branch — the middle fork of the Elkhorn Creek, which is where the city was founded.

Crank & Boom founder Toa Green developed her Lexington-famous coconut ice cream for her family’s restaurant, Thai Orchid Café (now Thai & Mighty), and the resounding success encouraged her to tinker with new flavors. I temporarily dither between choices of original coconut, coffee stout and bourbon & honey flavors until I give up and get a scoop of each. The company’s desire for spirit, community and sharing embraces the use of local ingredients, a sense of ecological responsibility, and in-kind and monetary donations to organizations including FoodChain. It seems perfectly placed in the new Lexington.
 I use a different passport with a visit to barrel House Distilling Co. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour Passport lists distinctive micro-distilleries honoring the traditions and heritage that have defined Kentucky bourbon for more than 200 years. The small-batch RockCastle Bourbon is named for King Springs in Rockcastle County, where its mountain spring water is sourced. I sip it slowly, hoping to prolong the experience, but it slides down my throat and my glass is empty far too quickly. The bartender kindly gives me another taste.

During my stay, I’ve become familiar with downtown Lexington because it’s all within walking distance of my hotel, the Gratz Park Inn. From here, I’ve wandered from site to site on the city’s African American Heritage Trail, created by sociology professor Doris Wilkinson. Next door to the Mary Todd Lincoln House (the childhood home of the former first lady) stands the simple brick-and-column Main Street Baptist Church. From there, I walk over to Cheapside, an area that was one of the most well known of the slave-market districts in the South.

Adding to the historic self-tours in the downtown area, a new mobile app helps me navigate the architectural highlights of Lexington’s traditional business district. The 13 buildings in the LexArch Tour represent a rich array of styles, from the Old Courthouse to the Cheapside Plaza buildings and Lexington City Bank building. The benefit of the two tours is that I can take my time, linger when I want to or follow the itinerary out of order — all without angering guides or other sightseers.
Street art appears in unexpected places throughout Lexington. Several organizations have sponsored local and internationally known artists to create murals across the city — from small single-subject paintings to more elaborate projects that take up the entire wall of a multistory building. The combination of historic architecture and modern-day graffiti is another illustration of how Lexington embraces old and new.

Just outside Table Three Ten restaurant is fantastical “Moonshine” in grays, pinks and reds. Across an asphalt parking lot on Market Street, an enormous, whimsical troupe of mural-people, dubbed Lily and the Silly Monkeys, peers out from a wall below the spire of Christ Church Cathedral. On the back of the Kentucky Theatre, a multihued Abraham Lincoln gazes down on passersby. Origami birds fly across a brick wall, bright tulip poplar flowers pop from behind a stairwell and an alien looks out across downtown Lexington. The murals even travel to the Distillery District, where they depict a dead bee, an acrobat pyramid and a caged artist using street sign language. The murals cause me to open my eyes wider and look all around rather than keep to the urban habit of walking quickly and focusing straight ahead.

I take a break at The Upstart Crow, which has the feel of a metropolitan bar, and snack on short-rib dumplings before continuing my Lexington adventure. Studying the map on my phone, I realize that the final Brewgrass Trail stamp, yet unattained in my passport, is just a few blocks away. It’s the middle of the afternoon — an acceptable time for a beer, I reason. And perhaps on my way there, I’ll stumble across another mural that further illuminates the real reason why, despite its more-than-worthy history, Lexington is one of my favorite new places.



Horse Country


Smithtown Seafood
Middle Fork Kitchen Bar
Crank & Boom Ice Cream Lounge
Upstart Crow
(859) 231-8666


Alltech Lexington Brewing and Distilling Co.
Ethereal Brewing
Country Boy Brewing
West Sixth Brewing
Barrel House Distilling Co.
Break Room
(859) 425-6504


Gratz Park Inn




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