By Shelly Whitehead
Quick – where is the world’s largest bourbon bar?
If you said, right here in Kentucky you are correct. If you also said Newport, right again.
Just a few months back, however, you would have been wrong. Then, the world’s largest bourbon bar, believe it or not, was in Tokyo.
That really bugged local attorney, Peter Newberry, who thought that it only fitting that the biggest bourbon bar on the planet ought to be where the stuff originated.
So Newberry and his wife, Kim, built it – right in the back of their recently opened Newberry Bros. Coffee, ala bar operators during Prohibition, to hide their trade in the “hard stuff.”
Today, the Prohibition Bourbon Bar, tucked surreptitiously behind the coffee establishment at Sixth and Washington in Newport, is fast becoming the go-to place for lovers of all things bourbon whiskey.
But it almost didn’t happen.
In fact, had Kim Newberry not suffered a darn-near-death experience a few years back, these two would probably still be plugging away at their successful careers in life insurance and law (which Peter still practices).
But there’s just something about surviving a massive blood clot and pulmonary embolism that jolts you and those you love into going after your dreams right now.
For the Newberrys, that dream revolved around great coffee, smooth bourbon, and lots and lots of friends. They had even talked about cool locations as they drove through Newport and Covington.
They had in mind a particular space that had been used as a pole dancing studio. Kim had spotted for “For Sale” sign on it a few years back when she was meeting friends for lunch at Pompilio’s across the street.
“We’d had our eye on that old Johnston and Murphy shoe outlet building,” Peter recalled. “I bought a lot of my shoes there 30 years ago, and I still have ’em. The building always had a lot of potential, I thought. Then Kim saw it was for sale.”
It was kismet and soon the two were restoring the aging, but well-maintained brick structure as soon-to-be coffee roasters and purveyors of fine handmade pastries. In no time at all, residents of the surrounding East Row Neighborhood – along with a whole lot of the Newberrys’ cycling enthusiast friends – had made the location their weekend coffee and breakfast hangout.
“When we opened up, the neighborhood just kind of adopted us,” Kim says.
Not long after the coffee spot opened, fortune again smiled on the energetic couple and led them to the second part of their dream, when they got a chance to assume a highly coveted Newport liquor license.
Peter – who is a walking encyclopedia of bourbon brands and high-end liquor – knew exactly how and where to put that liquor license to use.
That was when Peter suggested to Kim that largest bourbon bar in the world belonged in Kentucky – not Tokyo.
The rest, as they say, is history, and now both businesses are up and running, attracting folks from all over. But to say this is just a coffee spot and bar would be to shortchange the place.
The bar for instance is much more than bourbon.
With more than 60 kinds of scotch, 30-plus Japanese whiskeys (the Japanese adore bourbon, by the way, and many who live locally are frequent customers), as well as many other types of liquor and more than 60 different wines served by the glass.
At Newberry Bros. the coffee is roasted regularly on site to very exacting freshness standards. Pastry chef Mary Anne Montgomery provides fresh croissants and other French specialties to an adoring — and clearly addicted — crowd of customers.
“We want people to feel as if they’re coming into our home – we want people to feel like this is their own place,” Kim says, with much head-nodding from Peter. “It’s such a joy hearing from people when they make comments like ‘you’ve got the best croissants!’ Or we even have people tell us this is the ‘Cheers’ of Newport, where everyone knows your name.’
“That’s really what we set out to do with this.”
Currently, both the bistro and coffee business, as well as the bourbon bar, are only open Friday through Sunday. That’s largely because the Newberrys have a kind of obsession with doing things right and the three days of the week is as much as they can adequately staff.
It’s likely their growing list of patrons, however, will soon be begging for more days since both the coffee and bourbon bar are gaining a regional following.
Maybe that’s because the two types of drinks – despite their very different personalities and purposes – have a way of selling each other. Customers who stop by for a bag of fresh roast and some Newberry’s killer croissants by day, often stumble upon the entrance to the Prohibition Bourbon bar and soon they’re back in the evening, as well.
“The typical experience we’ve seen with people is that they are at Newberry’s and somehow they’ll wander through and see that there’s a back room and they ask about it and want to walk through,” Peter said. “When they do go through that threshold to the bar, a lot of them say something like, ‘Ah! I’ve suddenly gone to heaven.’”
Indeed, the walk around the corner at Newberry’s is a kind of revelation.
First, visitors catch a passing glimpse of a golden aura beaming from the walls of the amber-colored elixir shining through the hallway. Even in a fully caffeinated state, it has a dreamlike quality that is apparently pretty effective at calling customers back.
They come either to taste a few of the more than 800 brands of bourbon and rye, attend a popular weekend event — like Group Date Night or the upcoming Bourbon – It’s not just for the Boys event – or just meet friends and savor a slow drink on the brick patio under the stars.
That popularity is also having some rather pleasant side effects beyond these businesses’ doors, since many one-time bourbon neophytes get turned on to the taste of the stuff. Those unfamiliar with this lovely Newport neighborhood also gain a fondness for it simply by sharing in this couple’s dreams.
That, says Kim, is a dream come true for her.
“I think we’re a really good team,” she said, glancing at Peter with a smile. “He saved my life.”