Kentuckians are a people who like to uphold the traditions that they’ve embraced for generations, whether that’s the offer of hospitality shared over a fine bourbon and delicious meal, or delight found in handcrafted toys and decorative pieces made by self-taught artisans.
KET’s The Local Traveler visited with several purveyors of those traditions in central and eastern Kentucky: the Lexington entrepreneurs who are bringing food and spirits to a once abandoned distillery, and the craftsmen and women whose work is featured at the Kentucky Folk Art Center at Morehead State University.
A Place Filled with Spirits, Past and Present
When the James E. Pepper Distillery opened in Lexington in 1879, it was thought to be the largest bourbon distillery in the country at that time. After decades of producing spirits under the Pepper brand, the distillery closed in 1958 and the operation on Manchester Street just west of downtown was left to crumble.
But in recent years a group of entrepreneurs has worked to restore and revitalize what’s now known as the Pepper Campus into a destination featuring good food and handcrafted beer and spirits.
Andrew Bishop was hesitant at first to consider the abandoned distillery as a potential home for his microbrewery. The Lexington native says he knew there wasn’t much happening in that part of town. Then his realtor gave him a tour of the site.
“When we walked in the building it was love at first sight,” says Bishop, a co-founder of Ethereal Brewing. “We knew we could make it work.”
Ethereal was one of the first tenants of the Pepper Campus, where they now brew a range of Belgian, American, and English style IPAs, stouts, and porters. In addition to the brewing operation, Ethereal also has a bar where visitors can relax and enjoy the fresh beers on tap that day.
Bishop is so devoted to local ingredients for Ethereal’s handcrafted beers that he and his team are cultivating indigenous yeasts that naturally occur in Kentucky to use in their brewing processes.
For those who desire a stiffer drink, the Pepper Campus is also home to Barrel House Distilling Company, which specializes in small-batch spirits. Operations manager Robert Downing says Barrel House produces bourbon, corn-based vodka, and barrel-aged rum as well as light and dark moonshines based on an old eastern Kentucky recipe.
Downing says his distillery got the Barrel House name because it’s located in the building where Pepper whiskeys were once put into barrels for storage.
“We feel like while we’re down here running operations on a daily basis we have the spirits of the old James Pepper folks watching us to make sure we don’t step out of line,” says Downing.
Some Food to Accompany Your Drinks
The Pepper Campus is also home to several food options, including the Middle Fork Kitchen Bar, a farm-to-table restaurant with a lounge in one of the beautifully restored distillery buildings and a large outdoor patio.
“We’re not hammered into one cuisine,” says Middle Fork owner and chef Mark Jensen. “My style of cooking and my crew’s style of cooking is really to explore all the different textures we can put on to the plate.”
Jensen came to Lexington 15 years ago with plans to open a restaurant. Until he could find the right location, he operated the popular Fork in the Road food truck, which he says gave him a chance to hone his recipes and learn what dishes would be popular with Lexington consumers.
With a seasonally changing menu, Middle Fork sources many of its ingredients from local farmers and producers. The restaurant offers a range of small plates, vegetables, and meat-based entrées. A popular appetizer is Jensen’s take on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. His version features a ginger peanut sauce and lime-orange jam served with fired-grilled baguette, chilis, cilantro, and red onion pickles.
While at the Pepper Campus, you can also indulge your sweet tooth with a visit to the Crank & Boom Ice Cream Lounge. Their most popular flavors include blackberry buttermilk and bourbon honey ice creams. If you can’t decide on just one ice cream, Crank & Boom offers a tasting flight of four flavors.
For a more adult spin on dessert, you can top your ice cream with various liqueurs or get an ice cream float made with locally brewed porter beer or a scoop of sherbet swimming in sparkling wine. But the decadence doesn’t end there.
“We do an ice cream sandwich,” says says Shawn Burns, Director of operations and sales for the ice cream-maker. “That’s a donut with scoop of ice cream on top, and then we usually put some bacon on there as our number-one selling topping.”
Crank & Boom also offers a waffle brunch on Saturdays and Sundays.
The Pepper Campus is also home to the Break Room bar, which has an outdoor deck overlooking Town Branch Creek, and a location of Goodfellas Pizzeria. A variety of local food trucks also set up shop in the campus parking area throughout the week. And James E. Pepper bourbons will return to the Pepper Campus later this year with a revived distilling operation.
The Craft Traditions of Eastern Kentucky
Morehead State University has been educating the students of Appalachia and beyond for 130 years. Drawing on the traditions of that region, the school is home to a unique museum that highlights the handmade crafts of local artisans.
“The Kentucky Folk Art Center is one of the few museums in America that deals exclusively with self-taught art,” says director Matt Collinsworth. “And we’re the only museum in the world that deals with self-taught art from one state or region.”
The center’s first-floor gallery features a rotating selection of the nearly 1,400 pieces in its permanent collection, while a second-floor exhibit space hosts special exhibits that change every three or four months. During your visit to the center you might also get to meet one of the many regional artists whose work is featured at the museum.
“I growed up in hard times when we didn’t have toys to play with,” says Minnie Adkins. “I learned I could use a pocket knife and make toys and stuff to play with.”
Adkins’ colorful carvings of animals and people have become popular among museums like the Smithsonian and collectors including Oprah Winfrey and Barbara Streisand. In addition to making her own work, Adkins also teaches other people how to make folk art by whittling.
Her influence can be seen in the work Jo Ann Butts, who is a cousin of Adkins. Butts also whittled her own toys as a child in hardscrabble Appalachia, and got encouragement from Adkins in sharpening her skills. Now Butts carves a menagerie of animals from roosters and alligators to skunks and owls.
“I try to make everything bright and colorful so that it will cheer people up,” Butts says. “It just hurts my soul to make something that’s dull looking.”
Tim Lewis is an Elliott County native (and a distant relation of Adkins) who is also an accomplished carver. But instead of just whittling wood, Lewis is renowned for his stone carvings of people and other figures.
“I can stay at home and do it,” Lewis says. “I can sit in my swing… in the sun and whittle a little bit… If I can get a smile [from people], that’s good for me.”
The Kentucky Folk Art Center is at 102 West First Street in Morehead. It’s open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.