Cincinnati, on the Ohio River's northern bank, is ideally placed as a gateway to exploring northern Kentucky. And after discovering the joy of sipping bourbon and mixing cocktails with America's native spirit during the lockdown, I'm looking forward to visiting a handful of Kentucky's distilleries.
But first I plan on checking out the highlights in and around this largely overlooked US destination.
Home to approximately 310,000 urban residents, Cincinnati’s population size is similar to Newcastle’s. But rather than just one neighbour, the American city has two on the far side of the waterway it overlooks. The Ohio River marks the Ohio-Kentucky state border and, historically, that also demarcated the boundary between the USA’s slave-owning southern states and slave-free northern states.
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center introduces the history of slavery plus the secret network of escape routes and safehouses, known as the Underground Railroad, that helped people to flee enslavement before America’s Civil War. From the building’s second floor, I gaze across the river towards Covington.
Today the cities are connected by the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, which was the longest structure of its type in the world when it opened in 1866. Anyone who has visited New York City may think the landmark looks familiar. Roebling expanded on his design to draw up the blueprints for the Brooklyn Bridge. It also features in the 1988 film Rain Man, starring Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman. Rather than zipping across the bridge in an open-topped car, I stroll over while admiring murals depicting facets of the region’s history on Covington’s riverfront floodwall.
Covington and Newport, also on the southern bank of the Ohio River, are separated by the narrow Licking River – named after the salt licks which attracted bison before the vast herds that once roamed North America were hunted to the point of extinction. Outside Gangsters Dueling Piano Bar I meet with Martin, from American Legacy Tours, to participate in a Newport Gangster Tour. “This was Vegas before Vegas,” he explains at the outset of a 90-minute walking tour of a city once famed for its casinos and connections with infamous Prohibition-era mobsters including Dutch Schultz.
Near the waterfront, Martin points out a grand house once owned by brigadier general John T. Thompson, the man who designed the submachine gun favoured by many hitmen in the 1920s and 1930s. The weapon was better known as the Tommy Gun. I learn that there were many mob kills in Newport over the half-century during which the Kentucky city was a popular hub for gambling and other forms of adult entertainment. Before returning to Cincinnati, I join a tour of the Newport-based New Riff Distilling, which opened in 2014. Grover guides a group of us through the premises, explaining that bourbon can be made anywhere in the USA, not just Kentucky, so long as corn accounts for at least 51 per cent of the ingredients which go into the mash. It must enter a new, charred barrel at between 80 and 125 proof for maturation and nothing can be added other than water, should the spirit need to be diluted. He shares tots of rye whiskeys and bourbons during the tasting at the tour’s end.
Cincinnati’s cultured reputation resulted in it becoming known as ‘the Queen City’ as settlers poured westward in the early 19th century. Germans later settled the area that became known as the Over-the-Rhine district. The resurgent neighbourhood is the site of the popular Findlay Market. It’s there – at Eckerlin Meats, a business that opened in 1855 – that I sample goetta, a minced pork and oat-based delicacy that reminds me of haggis.
I discover that Cincinnati became a hub for the pork business and consequently won another, less flattering nickname – Porkopolis. The animals were transported in barges along the river. Seen on vessels shrouded in the morning mist, it’s said the live cargo would look like it was flying.
This explains imagery depicting flying pigs around the city, including at a concession stand at Great American Ball Park, the home of the Cincinnati Reds. To find out more about America’s oldest baseball club I tour the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame and Museum and learn that a Sheffield-born man, Harry Wright, played a key role in establishing professional baseball.
I mull on that over a pint at the nearby Moerlein Brewery and consider where to head next. A tour of the Cincinnati Bengals’ Paycor Stadium or a trip to the American Sign Museum?