The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Travel
An unsung US city of bourbon and beer
Cincinnati is relatively unknown to British travellers – but a new service from Heathrow, starting next week, brings the city’s booming drinks scene and history-soaked riversides closer, says Chris Leadbeater
Standing on the roof of the Carew Tower at 10am, I have to shield my eyes to see through the glare of mid-morning. The star attraction is still unmistakeable, even in the harsh sunlight. The structure beneath my feet is an Art Deco statement; a 49-storey, red-brick marvel that has crowned the Netherland Plaza hotel since 1930. Yet my gaze does not rest on it. Instead, it is pulled down, five blocks south, to where the Ohio slides along the city’s edge – one of the greatest rivers in the US, drawn onto the map in silver ink.
Pinned to the lower flank of the state that shares the river’s name, Cincinnati exists where two of the 50 pieces of the US jigsaw intersect. With the opposite side of the river belonging to Kentucky, this stretch of the Ohio is a bottleneck where the traditional American North and South rub up against each other. It is, in effect, a westerly continuation of the old Mason-Dixon Line, etched in water.
In the 235 years since it was founded, Cincinnati has consistently been a magnet for people, not least European settlers lured down river, seeking a better life in the American interior. As of this week, it should attract visitors from the UK, too. Monday will see the launch of a new British Airways flight from Heathrow. This much-needed route will open up Ohio and Kentucky to curious travellers (and neighbouring Indiana, too).
Those arriving in the coming months will have to cross the river; Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport is on the southern side. In doing so, they will be following a well-trodden – and once wildly dangerous – path.
Go back to the mid-19th century and Cincinnati was on the front line. When it formally emerged as a state in 1803, Ohio already had a ban on slavery. The South most certainly did not. Almost from the moment of its birth, Cincinnati was a light at the end of a particularly perilous tunnel; a station on the Underground Railroad, offering escaped slaves sanctuary from the whip-wielders and plantation owners of Kentucky. For decades, these desperate souls came north, tip-toeing under cover of darkness, inching towards the lights on the opposite banks of the Ohio – the river’s narrowness at this point making Cincinnati an appealing place to cross.
This race to liberty is now saluted on the very bank where rowing boats once paddled out on rescue missions. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (freedomcenter.org) sees no need to soften its tone, driving straight to the human cost. Green glass beads hang from the ceiling in commemoration of those who drowned on the journey from Africa. There is a set of shackles and chains that was used on those cruel voyages, and a squat wooden slave house, built in 1832, which lived on as a barn used for drying tobacco. And the museum hails those who fought so fiercely – including author and campaigner Harriet Beecher Stowe, who lived in Cincinnati between 1832 and 1850.
If the Center makes for an discomfiting experience – and it is absolutely meant to – there are other, more upbeat stories, too. Even as slaves were making their terrified dashes north, the introduction of the steamboat onto the Ohio in 1811 transformed Cincinnati into a transportation hub and boom town, swollen with jobs. The women and men who came to fill them were mostly Irish and German immigrants chasing new lives.
The latter group’s impact is still wholly visible where the busy Over-the-Rhine (OTR) district sings of those who abandoned Hamburg and Hanover to populate it. Dressed as a worker of the era in cap and leather waistcoat, Carl Swabek of American Legacy Tours (americanlegacytours. com) walks me through the turbulence. The area grew up as an enclave obsessed with brewing, pumping out ale for weary German labourers. It would ultimately be ripped apart, its spirit destroyed by the First World War and its fostering of anti-German sentiment, followed by Prohibition in 1919.
Ghosts remain. Streets had their names altered, traces of the old country erased. But some remember: a corner wall on Republic Street is still engraved with “Bremen Street”. “The neighbourhood was 70 per cent German,” Swabek explains. “They were crammed into these houses – living conditions were tough.”
They would not improve immediately. Like many US cities, Cincinnati declined in the 1950s and 1960s, its more affluent residents running to the sanctuary of the suburbs. But equally, it has witnessed a resurgence this century. For one thing, the beer evangelists have returned. In the OTR, Taft’s Ale House (taftsbeer.com) is slotted into a former church, a mural of St Paul visible behind the brewing tanks. He looks cross – perhaps because his name has been replaced above the door by that of William Taft, the Cincinnati-born 27th US president.
Down at the river, meanwhile – perched between the two giant stadia where the Bengals and the Reds (respectively, Cincinnati’s NFL American football and Major League Baseball teams) do their stuff – Moerlein Lager House (moerleinlagerhouse.com) trades on the city’s German past. Its 6.7 per cent Bockfest Homebrew goes straight to my head.
But it is not only in the clink of tankards that Cincinnati shows its regeneration. The OTR delivers fine dining at Salazar (salazarcincinnati.com), where titular chef Jose offers dishes such as a “heritage breed” pork chop with creamed kale and pecan cornbread. Findlay Market (findlaymarket.org) feels similarly up to date, though it has existed since 1852. Electric trams glide past its many stores and stalls, including the Maverick Chocolate Co (maverickchocolate.com), where you can buy a bourbon-laced Prohibition Bar – and Eckerlin Meats (eckerlinmeats.com), which sells goetta, a German-American mash-up of pork, beef, oats and spices.
“Goetta is great with an egg for breakfast,” says Barb Cooper of Cincinnati Food Tours (cincinnatifoodtours.com), “and it’s such a Cincinnati thing. If you go even 20 miles outside, you find that many folks haven’t heard of it.”
There is culture as well as food. Between the OTR and the river is Downtown, where the Contemporary Arts Center (contemporaryartscenter. org) stands proud as Zaha Hadid’s final project in North America – its concrete walls bright with temporary exhibitions. The adjacent 21C Museum Hotel, meanwhile, is a clever reimagining of the 1912 Hotel Metropole, its lobby turned into a striking gallery, its ground floor full of sculptures.
Cincinnati’s reanimation has been so infectious that it has spread across the river onto the Kentucky shore. Half a century ago, Newport was nobody’s idea of refined or arty – though it was plenty of people’s idea of a good time. It made its reputation in the 1940s and 1950s, partying all night as a nest of brothels, illegal gambling joints and mob-run bars. It did this with such alacrity that American Legacy Tours sells a gangster-themed overview of the town – along Monmouth Street, which once rang to the sound of drunken gunshots and “houses of ill repute”; past the bulky building at 518 York Street, once the site of the Yorkshire, a club operated by the Cleveland mafia. All is (thankfully) calmer now – and the local booze is not so much bootleg moonshine as the bourbon and gin crafted by New Riff Distilling (newriffdistilling.com), at the riverside.
Two miles away, across the side channel of the Licking River, the Kentucky
town of Covington also has a thirst – for flights of beer and hipster ambience at Braxton Brewing Company (braxtonbrewing.com), and for the whisky-heavy cocktail list at Hotel Covington (hotelcovington.com; rooms from £177), a 1907 department store now reimagined as a 114-room retreat. Outside, the courtyard is heaving with merriment and refreshed chatter – that afternoon’s Pride march having coalesced into an evening party.
On the back wall, someone has taken their Kentucky accent and turned it into a witty slogan – writing the message “Y’all means all!” in streaks of rainbow chalk. The words are light, joyful, but they have power and pertinence, too, here on a riverbank where fugitives once fled oppression. Throughout its history, people have travelled a long way to settle in Cincinnati. The city has come a long way in return.