Everyone loves a story and Tony Davis has a good one to tell.
Tony is the owner of Kentucky Knows, located on the corner of Washington and Broadway streets. He’s passionate about the story of bourbon barrel coffee and the rich history that surrounds each cup, greeting each guest to his downtown Frankfort shop with a free cup of his specially-brewed coffee — and its story.
“Usually, people will leave with a cup of coffee and one of our bags of coffee, too,” he said.
“I don’t sell cups of coffee,” Tony says with a smile. “My cups of coffee are always free. The goal is to share Kentucky Knows’ story with each person who finds their way into my store.”
Tony says he wants to leave behind the legacy of a brand that shares the history and culture of Kentucky both through his coffee and his art from recycled Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels.
Tough beginnings, good end
Tony grew up in what he describes as “humble beginnings” in Lexington. “I failed seventh grade three times,” he says, staring into the distance. “Eventually, I got my GED, joined the military. Now, I work to contribute to my place in the community. I’ve worked hard. But that’s what life’s all about.”
The idea for Kentucky Knows bourbon barrel coffee started thousands of miles from the commonwealth, Tony says. While he was serving in the U.S. Marine Corps at Camp Pendleton, he noticed the intense interest in wine in California, its makings and the barrels used in the process. He thought, “Why couldn’t someone do that with bourbon barrels?”
When Tony returned to Kentucky, he brought that creative idea with him and began working in a barn in his backyard, handcrafting gifts from bourbon barrels and other virgin woods. The ideas kept growing and so did his business. Tony has honed his craft as a bourbon barrel craft artisan and an innovative coffee roaster. He has developed a relationship with Buffalo Trace Distillery to use their barrels for his craftsmanship and his coffee. He has invested in the Frankfort community, moving his business to the heart of downtown.
When you walk into Kentucky Knows on Broadway, it’s more than a store. It’s an experience. The aroma of coffee wafts pleasantly throughout the space. Chandeliers created from the metal bands of bourbon barrels hang from the ceiling and bourbon barrel furniture is available for purchase. Those who visit also have the opportunity to learn about the processes Tony uses in making his bourbon barrel crafts and coffee. Framed articles on easels in his store tell his story. As well, there are bourbon-related artifacts on display from years past that give Kentucky Knows a museum-like feel.
“It took two years to figure out how to make our coffee,” Tony says. He shares that, initially, his coffee didn’t have the flavors he had hoped for from the inside of the bourbon barrel. But, with a bit of ingenuity and determination, he found the solution to create the ultimate cup of coffee.
“My barrel-aged coffee is roasted inside a 1952 Probat German belt-fed drum roaster. Letting the beans ‘sleep’ inside the barrels allows the coffee to infuse with hints of caramelized bourbon, vanilla and spice. All of my Arabica coffee beans come from Antigua, Guatemala, which is the Highland region. The Guatemalan bean has proven to be one of the best beans to savor a true taste of coffee under high heated temperatures,” he says.
Tony uses instinct to determine when the coffee is at it’s peak flavor. “There are no whistles or bells that indicate when my coffee is finished. My coffee is crafted by my senses — sight, smell, hearing and taste.” Roasted weekly and only in small batches, Tony says this ensures that the quality is never compromised and balanced in every cup.
“My goal is to create an emotional and memorable experience through my craft,” he remarks. Tony believes that in order to create something special, struggle has to be involved and that is an important part of the story. “I want people to know that there is a heartbeat in my craft and in my coffee.”
Investing in the community
Tony plans to expand his store to create a family-friendly venue at Kentucky Knows. “There will be 1,500 additional square feet to the store space and another 1,700 square feet of outdoor space that will include a patio,” he remarks.
He’s turning his vision into reality. “Once the outdoor space is completed, weather permitting, on weekends we’ll show movies on a 3D movie projector. You’ll be able to come with your family and watch a movie and roast marshmallows dipped in chocolate expresso beans,” Tony comments. “We’re going to bring local live instrumental music in — blues, jazz, classical, bluegrass.”
He envisions activities year-round inside the store. “You’ll be able to watch us roast on a large screen, maybe make something from the barrel and join in a class activity. You’ll be able to roast your own coffee and do a cupping of that,” he says. “It’s going to be a family activity center and a destination. We want to be able to tell the story of what Kentucky Knows.”
Writer’s note: When I entered Tony’s store for our interview early one Sunday morning, he soon asked if I’d like a cup of coffee. I declined. “I’m not a coffee drinker,” I said, smiling. Tony said he hears that quite a bit from people. It didn’t phase him. He told me his story. He is so happy doing what he’s doing. And that made me want to try a cup of his coffee. He had me smell the beans in a jar first, instructing me on how to breathe in with my mouth. Then, I had a sip of coffee with a bit of cream and sugar. This hot tea drinker actually enjoyed every bit of that cup of coffee. Part of liking the coffee may have been the experience as well as learning Tony’s story about building a craft to share with others. But I did like it, and I’ll have another cup the next time a wander by Kentucky Knows on Broadway.