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Tuesday, July 20, 2021

River City Resilience Series: Ludlow, Kentucky | The Second Sight Spirits Experience (Sponsored by Southbank Partners)

Carus Waggoner. Photo: Phil Armstrong. Fort Thomas Matters. 

by Robin Gee
Photos by Phil Armstrong


Second Sight Spirits | 301 Elm St., Ludlow KY
Tours: Friday - Sunday at noon, 2pm & 4 pm; Distillery: Friday - Sunday 11:30am - 5pm; Lounge: Friday & Saturday 9am - 6pm; Sunday 9am - 5pm | call (859) 488-7866 


301 Elm St. Ludlow, Kentucky. Photo: Phil Armstrong. Fort Thomas Matters.

The sights you’ll see and the experiences you’ll have at Second Sight Spirits may not be what you expect from a typical distillery tour. In fact, the aim of the owners is to offer the unexpected and to provide guests with an experience like none other.

Friends Carus Waggoner and Rick Couch met in their freshman year at Conner High School in Hebron. From the start, they had a lot in common Waggoner said. They were both tinkerers, both enjoyed "making stuff." 

After high school Couch went off to college to study mechanical engineering, while Waggoner pursued a degree in industrial design. The two stayed in touch, getting together outside of work for side projects and ideas — making stuff.

As one of those side projects, the pair began designing for the Cincinnati Ballet. The ballet’s operations manager took a new job in Las Vegas as the artistic director for the "Beatles Love" show for the Cirque du Soleil, and when he needed some technical help, he invited Waggoner to come help. About a year later, Waggoner had brought Couch out to help on the show as well.

"So, we got to build the Beatles show," said Waggoner. "Then they gave us another show, Elvis at Aria Casino, but that wasn’t very good. In fact, that was a $10 million mistake." 

A moonshine heritage

The show’s failure may have been serendipity for the two friends. They started to discuss what might be next. "During that time we found out that we had like heritages in distillery. My great grandfather ran a lot of moonshine in West Virginia, and Rick’s great grandfather was a sheriff in Hazard County. He used to bust moonshiners and drink their shine." 

Photo: Phil Armstrong. Fort Thomas Matters.

Waggoner said that gave them some ideas."We thought, with our skill sets, maybe we could build our own still."

They set up in Waggoner's small apartment and went to work. As they were practicing and perfecting their distilling, they met the owner of the Las Vegas Distillery, who allowed them to assemble a still and gain hands-on experience in distilling.

Armed with new skills and a plan to start their own distillery, Waggoner and Couch returned home to Kentucky to look for a suitable venue. 

Hands-on in Ludlow

After a few tries to find a spot, they found a perfect location in Ludlow, Waggoner said. "Ludlow was the first city that welcomed us with open arms and gave us a street-front presence right on Route 8...The city was really willing to work with us."

From the start, he said, they wanted to provide more than just a good product. They wanted to give patrons an unforgettable experience in a relaxed accessible atmosphere, and for that they needed to be where the people were.

Ludlow is undergoing a renaissance, said Waggoner. "There are a lot of like-minded, self funded entrepreneurs here ... We have Bircus Brewing, which is half beer, half circus. We have Leeta Ruth, this amazing women’s boutique. Taste on Elm just opened up, which is a nice high-end cafe and wine shop. We have the three art galleries now. We have The Parlor ice cream shop. We have The Tavern, which is a staple for really good food. It’s really neat to see all the new businesses coming up."

Ludlow City Administrator Scott Smith said Second Sight fits right in with the city’s plans to provide a mix of very unique businesses within its main district along Elm Street.

"We are very landlocked, so we are limited about the growth we can have. We have to be smart about what we put where. Getting the right mix of businesses is important...We want them to be successful. We don’t want redundancy, and we are looking for things that are unique." 

Photo: Phil Armstrong. Fort Thomas Matters.

He added to Waggoner’s list by mentioning tattoo parlors, boutiques, a fencing school, a beekeeping shop and more — all within a two-mile radius.

Ludlow is undergoing a rebranding effort based on its heritage as a historic railroad town. Smith said it’s a balance between protecting historic buildings while also inviting and encouraging new shops and businesses.

Ludlow borders Devou Park, and the entrance to the mountain bike and walking trails actually start in Ludlow in the small Carlisle Park. In fact, Smith said, the whole city is walking and bike friendly.

"And, in Ludlow, you are within 10 or 15 minutes of everything. Ludlow is within 10 or 15 minutes of downtown Cincinnati, Hebron or Florence or Independence. We are very conveniently located, and if you’re looking for a different sort of day, come to Ludlow," Smith said. 

A unique experience at Second Sight

Waggoner and Couch set about creating the unique experience that would become Second Sight.

For owners who were funding everything themselves, the cost of buying a ready made still for their new venture was prohibitive. "So, we decided to make our still ourselves. It’s a bunch of scrap parts, a lot of it we got from Craigslist."

The distillery also has a lounge/cafe and a performance space. This was an important part of the plan, said Waggoner as the goal was to provide "experiences" not just tours. The tours take about an hour and end at the lounge, where patrons can have cocktails, coffee, pastries and, of course, bourbon.

Second Sight Spirit’s tours offer more than a dry presentation on distilling. Waggoner said they try to "lift the curtain" on the mysteries of the process. "We tell circus stories and failure stories... and how we made it work...We’re showing people how we did the magic trick. People start bobbing their heads, they start to get it, and that is really the most fun for us."

The distillery hosts individuals who come for tours but also whole busloads. They also offer space for rent for birthdays and company gatherings. They've hosted some weddings, said Waggoner, and even, recently, a wake. 

Photo: Phil Armstrong. Fort Thomas Matters.

Four grain and more on offer at Second Sight

Second Sight Spirits offers six different varieties of rum, said Waggoner. "We do Oak Eye Kentucky Bourbon; we do a hazelnut liquor and then we also manufacture and distill four types of moonshine."

Oak Eye is a four-grain bourbon, less common than most bourbons, he said. Waggoner wants people to know that every drop of their product is made and bottled on site.

Before the pandemic, the company offered the "Oak Eye Experience." A customer could pay for the ingredients and then make the bourbon with the distillers. Their investment would come back in bourbon. Waggoner hopes to bring back that experience and to add a bottle-your-own experience as well.

"Again, we just want to try to drive the high touch experience for our guests. We want our tours to be interactive."

A special role during the pandemic

"When the pandemic hit that really killed the experience side of the business," said Waggoner. Second Sight could no longer give tours, but they found a new role for the time being, he said.

"We were able to start making hand sanitizer. That was an experience. The first couple of weeks of the pandemic, it was a little scary. Nobody knew what was really going on, and there was such a shortage that we were getting phone calls from police departments on the east coast trying to find it. We were getting calls from Amazon almost weekly."


Photo: Phil Armstrong. Fort Thomas Matters.

He said one problem they had was sourcing the extra ingredients to make the sanitizer. At one point a delivery company held back supplies when their driver mistakenly thought they were shut down. They had to spend hours calling around to fix the situation. To get supplies, Waggoner said he and Couch had three routes they’d take to visit all the Family Dollar, Dollar General, CVS and Walgreens in the area in search of the hydrogen peroxide they needed.

Second Sight Spirits provided much-needed sanitizer to area fire stations, police departments, schools and nursing homes.

All trails lead to Second Sight

Second Sight Spirits participates in the Kentucky Craft Bourbon Trail. People tour five distilleries in the northern part of the state. In addition to Second Sight, they visit New Riff, Boone County, Old Pogue and Neely Family distilleries. The exposure has been vital to spreading the news about their business and about Kentucky bourbon.  

Kentucky bourbon attracts people from all over the world, Waggoner said. People especially like touring smaller operations where they often have the opportunity to meet and talk with the owners. He said he hopes the tours will help bring back these visitors as soon as things open up.

The other asset has been the B-Line, said Waggoner. With the B-Line, patrons can choose two distilleries, two bars and two restaurants. "They get free stuff just like on the bourbon trail, but it really helps people discover all the great stuff happening in Ludlow, Covington, Newport, Dayton, it’s nice for us. We get guests that come in during the trail and tell their friends."

The owners are working on some new hands-on experiences for the distillery. The still is being outfitted as  a fortune-telling Zoltar, and they plan to replace Fortuna, a fortune-teller goldfish that answered guests’ questions with bubbles in her tank. They are also working on a Swami Snacks machine that will dole out goodies based on a combination of numbers and letters chosen by patrons.

Waggoner said he has more ideas up his sleeve. Each one is focused on expanding and celebrating the Second Sight Spirits experience.

Photos: Phil Armstrong. Fort Thomas Matters. 

About Southbank Partners

Southbank Partners, Inc,, is a community and economic development organization that coordinates activity with the cities that lie along Northern Kentucky's bank of the Ohio River. Their purpose is to support the cities through promoting and coordinating development activities, fostering teamwork and collaboration, and providing a unified voice for the partner cities in advocating common positions to state and federal government, as well as to other communities. Members are: Bellevue, Covington, Dayton, Fort Thomas, Silver Grove, Ludlow and Newport. 

Check out more of the River City Resilience Series on Fort Thomas Matters:
River City Resilience: Galactic Chicken, Dayton KY
River City Resilience: Dari Bar, Silver Grove KY
River City Resilience: BB Riverboats, Newport KY

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