This Friday marks an annual Christmas tradition my mom and one of her oldest gal pals, Judy, observe – the “Making of the Bourbon Balls.” It’s something they’ve been doing for over a decade, and the product of their labor goes quickly. Some years I’ve not been quick enough on the draw to get my allotment of these wonderfully boozy candies, which have a local origin.
Some years they’re stronger than others. Mom and Judy typically use a low to medium level bourbon that still gives you that “Kentucky kiss”, or burn down the back of the throat when you eat them. And that’s how it should be, in my opinion. You want hard evidence the bourbon is there.
Although Mom and Judy call it part of their Christmas gift cookie process, I think it’s an excuse for two grown women to day-drink and laugh a lot. And who can blame them? The recipe they use, only calls for less than a cup of the magic elixir, but somehow, every year, nearly an entire bottle is depleted.
Mom used to bring them to her coworkers when she worked in a credit call center as part of their yearly Christmas cookie exchange. One year, one of the lucky recipients of Mom’s bourbon balls was caught in a traffic jam on the way home. She was so hungry she devoured several of the said candies. Although lucky enough to get home ok, she noticed a strong bourbon buzz coming on while she was driving. She had some explaining to do to her husband, who noticed her giddiness.
In the co-worker’s defense, the candies do look unassuming, like any other chocolate covered bonbon. To the uninitiated, one bite can cause an unexpected cough when the bourbon is detected. The whole pecan on top of each candy, though, is fair warning to those in the know, of its booziness.
And this yearly girls-only event is appropriate, since the bourbon ball is the product of a Kentucky candy company formed before women earned the right to vote by none other than two women. Two Kentucky school teachers, Ruth Hanley (Booe) and Rebecca Gooch, decided they weren’t really all that good at teaching. But they did realize the praise they got from friends and family for their gift of Christmas candies. So in 1919, when few women ventured into business, the two gal pals formed the Rebecca Ruth Candy Company. The two cooky twentysomethings had the unheard of belief that they could provide for themselves without the help of a man.
Ruth Hanley Booe, the inventor of the Bourbon Ball in 1938.
Their candy business was an instant success, with help of J.J. King, the owner of the Frankfort Hotel. They rented the hotel barroom, which had been closed by Prohibition. Here they hand dipped their chocolates on a marble table called “Edna’s Table.” Originally a bar top from the 1854 Old Capitol Hotel, Ruth had purchased it in 1917 after the hotel burned down. It was named after an employee Ruth hired in 1929, and who worked for the company for 67 years.
One of their first candies was the Mint Kentucky Colonel. Two pecan halves are placed on either side of a rich mint filling then coated with a thick dark chocolate.
In 1924, Ruth married Douglas Booe, and moved to Northern Kentucky, where she continued to make the chocolates. But her husband died four years later, from injuries in World War I, and she moved back to Frankfurt, Kentucky. Rebecca married soon after, and sold her stake in the candy business to Ruth.
The next year, the Great Depression hit, greatly affecting the business. Then, in 1933, Ruth’s house and candy factory burned, making her lose everything, except for “Edna’s Table.” With help from a friend with a $50 loan, she rose out of the ashes. The idea of mixing bourbon and chocolates came in 1936, and Ruth worked on the recipe for two years, perfecting the still-secret process for blending bourbon and candy. So, the official birthday of the Bourbon Ball is 1938. The unique chocolates soon became popular and sales boomed.
In 1964, Mrs. Booe retired, passing the business to her only son, John Booe. Ruth lived to the age of 82, passing away in 1973. John Booe further developed the business, expanding the factory and increasing candy production. In 1997, John sold the business to his son Charles Booe, and Charles runs the business today.
The Rebecca Ruth Candies store and factory in Frankfort, Kentucky.
Now just about every bourbon distillery has their own ‘secret-recipe’ bourbon balls in their gift shop. And numerous recipes abound so grown women, like my mom and Judy, can use them as an excuse for day-drinking – all thanks to two, not so great Kentucky school teachers – Rebecca and Ruth.