Kentucky historical district gets new a lease on life
Approaching the Distillery District from downtown Lexington, Ky., motorists are taken aback by the large black-and-red mural depicting what looks to be — depending on your perspective — a scuba diver, a man wearing a gas mask or a prison inmate flashing what may or may not be a gang symbol.
What it is is a self-portrait by French muralist MTO, and for some Lexingtonians it’s not exactly a warm and fuzzy addition to the city’s burgeoning public art scene. Yet the mural seems appropriate as a key feature of Lexington’s newest arts-and-entertainment corridor, the Distillery District.
Sandwiched between two historical bourbon distilleries — the nowdefunct Old Tarr and the recently reopened James E. Pepper — the area doesn’t exactly scream tourist hot spot. So why has such a scruffy side of this refined city become the newest go-to destination, where every night locals and visitors scramble for seats in spots that have opened in the past few years?
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.”
By 1810, more than 100 distilleries operated in or near the city, and by the late 1800s, two distilleries that bookend the current district produced some 36,000 barrels of bourbon annually. Economic downturns and Prohibition caused a decline in production. Less than a decade ago, it was a blighted area of empty buildings.
Today, Old Tarr has been converted into the Manchester Music Hall, while James E. Pepper has reopened and for the first time in 60 years is once again producing bourbon.
The Elkhorn Tavern at Barrel House Distilling is one of the newest additions to the Distillery District in Lexington, Ky.