Bourbon lovers in Kentucky tend to flock to Lexington and Louisville, the most notable cities for distilling in the Bluegrass State. But they’re only part of the larger story of America’s original spirit, which started on the Ohio River. But for those looking to buy rare bourbon, another city is worth a trip.
Set in downtown Covington, KY, just across the river from Cincinnati, is a store that feels more like a museum for rare spirits. Revival Vintage Spirits opened in August 2020 in the heart of town. Owner Brad “Dusty” Bonds started acquiring bottles from family members, sparking his interest in vintage spirits and, specifically, rare bourbon.
“My passion’s finding the old stuff. We try to have a little bit of new and a little bit of old because I feel like what I’m doing is the final frontier. I have your grandparents and your parents’ alcohol,” says Bonds, who buys entire collections. “I think the best alcohol’s already been made. I think it was made in the ’90s and older. I have the older stuff from the ’80s and older that have a tax strip from a bygone era that’ll never be made again, they’re basically little time capsules of a different day and age.”
The bottles Revival sells vary but include single barrels and store picks, novelty bottles and special releases — and it’s stuff you would never find in a typical liquor store, be it the product, year or the condition (just one example: “Chicken Cock Whiskey 1917 to 1933 100pf Pint aged in the wood for medicinal use with box half full dark and clear”). Prices vary based on the demand and size of the bottle but can be several thousand dollars.
His business partner, lawyer Shannon Smith, helped him navigate the tricky legal system around the burgeoning industry of antique spirits. Since then, Smith’s firm has been a go-to for distilleries and other spirits industry brands.
“It’s not legal in Ohio to do what we’re doing. So we’re capitalizing on being right on the border, attracting folks from both states,” says Smith. “People just call it the vintage spirits law, but it allows us to buy from private persons. These bottles that have already been sold can come back into the market because of this law. [But] there are a ton of restrictions around how many you can buy from an individual, reporting requirements labeling requirements.”
Some customers come into Revival in search of specific “unicorn” bottles, including birth year bottles or early Stitzel-Weller.
“We’re like a matchmaker for people that want bottles, like baseball cards of vintage spirits,” says Bonds. “And it’s like, ‘Hey, do you have Mickey Mantle’s third year? You might have his second year or whatever. I got his rookie card.’”
Part of the vision of Revival is also to share the lesser-known labels with the public that might not otherwise have access.
“I think people get really caught up in a label like Pappy Van Winkle or whatever. And I’d love to show people that they’ll probably like vintage Jim Beam better than Pappy or better than any store pick or whatever. There are just different stickers that people are putting on things, which we’re trying to get away from, and just make it more about what’s inside the bottle and not what’s outside of the bottle,” says Bonds. “It’s like a human being. It’s not what’s outside, it’s the inside that counts
Not only can you buy bottles of rare bourbon, but you can also taste what he has open at the bar, something many people will never get a chance to do. On my visit, I tried a rare bourbon from S.P. Lancaster that was distilled in 1916, and it was life-changing.
Bonds speaks to the importance of making these rare bottles approachable. “I think vintage spirits in general, the average person hasn’t been able to taste them because they’re at a Michelin star restaurant or they’re at a high-end bar in New York City. I want to change that to where the common person can come into our shop and try a taste of Jim Beam from the ’70s or ’80s every day for five bucks.”
Bonds and Smith also aim to create a welcoming atmosphere in the often “bro-y” world of bourbon. “I think bourbon, in general, has become a rich man’s game and we’re trying to level that out and we want everyone to feel welcome,” says Bonds.
Smith agrees: “I’m a member of the LGBTQ community and obviously, I’m a woman as well. So it’s been an interesting journey to see who we had originally come in versus what we have now.”
Revival is a stop on the B-Line, northern Kentucky’s craft spirits trail. Future plans for Revival include moving to a bigger space in town where they can serve cocktails and, thankfully, begin to ship to customers across the country.
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