A Bourbon Ball is Born!
I have just a few more Kentucky-related posts and I swear I’ll move on because there’s a whole world of Mystery and History out there to explore. We humans are an odd lot; so many times we become fascinated with things outside of our little corner and often forget we’ve got a ton of things near us. So I want to explore my little corner of the world from time to time, too.
Those close to me know that there was a medical situation in my family recently that necessitated several trips to Louisville. I won’t go into details on that, but while I was in Louisville, I came across a few things along the way that I found interesting or fascinating. I’ve already shared the story of Modjeska candy. I’ve since had an opportunity to taste something very like modjeskas and they are pretty darn good. Basically a marshmallow wrapped in buttery caramel, it tastes a lot like a roasted marshmallow—and even though I generally don’t like marshmallows, I LOVE roasted marshmallows; it’s my favorite campfire treat!
On the way home from Louisville one day, we stopped off at a little place in Frankfort, KY called Rebecca Ruth’s. I was on the hunt for modjeskas. Rebecca Ruth's has a “knock off” called Puffamels.
This was my first time ever in the store. It’s a tiny building with a big sign that says BOURBON and CANDY out front. That was all the incentive I needed. I love candy and I love things flavored with bourbon, so I figured I had a winner. Boy, was I right! They had all kinds of handmade bourbon-flavored candy crammed in that small building along with a variety of mugs, jewelry, bourbon-infused products, and other gifts. And the candy, no lie, is delicious.
I’ve prided myself for many years on my bourbon ball-making abilities, though the struggle is real when it comes to dipping those suckers in the chocolate. Chocolate is hard y’all. Therefore, my bias has created in a me a strict and finicky judge of others’ bourbon balls. Every one I’ve come across is either too chalky, too creamy, too nutty, not nutty enough, not bourbony enough, too sweet (yes, that's a thing), the chocolate is too slick and plasticy or tastes weird…You get the point. I won't call anyone out by name because that would just be rude, but there are many places in the area whose bourbon balls really aren’t that good. That's right. I said it. I’ve yet to find commercially-produced bourbon balls that can compare to a really good homemade one.
I will readily admit that I haven’t tried every single place yet. I’m still picking my way around bourbon ball territory, but Rebecca Ruth’s is probably THE best commercially produced bourbon ball I’ve had so far.
Well, as I discovered during my little side trip, there’s a reason for that: Rebecca Hanly Booe is “The Mother of Bourbon Balls!” As a former teacher myself, I wasn’t surprised to discover that she and her business partner, Rebecca Gooch, were once school teachers.
The business was founded in 1919 when, in protest of the absurdly low wages paid to substitute teachers, Ruth Hanly Booe and Rebecca Gooch (below) resigned their posts. Which was a pretty "ballsy" move (the joke was there, I had to take it) in a time when women hadn’t yet wont the right to vote. Since they'd always won high praise among friends and relatives for their Christmas candy, they decided to turn their Christmastime hobby into a business venture. They joined their first names to create Rebecca Ruth’s.
They began in the barroom of the Old Frankfort Hotel. Prohibition had closed the bar, so the owner of the hotel, J. J. King, allowed the women to use the space to make and sell candy. However, a rumor began to spread that the women were lacing their candy with liquor, which attracted a lot of customers and wild success.
Best of all Ruth and Rebecca had a sense of humor that they combined with their ingenuity to market their products. One example of this is when they would go to silent movies and talk loudly about how much they loved Rebecca Ruth candies.
In 1924 Ruth married an engineer, Douglas Booe, (below) and they soon moved to Fort Thomas, Kentucky for his work. Even while managing her marriage and children, she continued making candy while Rebecca remained in Frankfort to carry on the business. But Ruth was forced to return to Frankfort a few years later in 1927.
A few months after their son was born, Douglas was stricken with a sudden lung disease resulting from his exposure to the mustard gas used in World War I. Ruth was tasked with caring for an infant and two nieces. Though she applied to the government to receive assistance, she was told that there was no proof her husband’s death was related to the mustard gas exposure.
Meanwhile, in 1929, Rebecca got married and sold her portion of the candy shop to Ruth, though it’s unclear if that was in an attempt to help out Ruth, or if she’d grown tired of the business, or if she thought she should dedicate her energy to her new marriage.
Ruth (above) managed the business and was successful until the Great Depression hit in 1929. People everywhere were desperate and could no longer afford to buy luxuries like chocolate as they once did. Mail orders crept to a near stop and people bought by the piece instead of the box. Ruth used this down time to experiment with new flavors and recipes, creating her famous Mint Kentucky Colonel Chocolate.
Sometimes when bad luck rains, it pours. Ruth’s candy business burned down in 1933. Somehow, though, her marble confectioner’s table survived. She rubbed the soot off the top and said, “This marble has survived two fires, so surely, I can survive one.” The fire destroyed all of her other equipment and possessions. Undaunted, and with a six-year-old son to support, she went to the bank to request a loan for $50 to restart her business. The loan officer denied the loan on the grounds that she was a woman who didn’t have a father or husband to help her manage the money.
Discouraged, she left and stopped by the Old Frankfort Hotel, where she told her story to a housekeeper named, if you can believe it, Fanny Rump. However, Fanny turned out to be a fairy godmother. She had no husband or children and had managed to save some money. She loaned her life savings to Ruth. Ruth bought all her equipment, reopened her business, and paid Fanny back—with interest—in a matter of months.
With her witty flair for marketing, she dressed up as a Southern Belle and attended the Kentucky Derby to promote her chocolate to great success.
A few years later, came the best invention to the world of chocolate, in my humble opinion: the bourbon ball. During Frankfort’s sesquincentinnal celebration, a society doyenne named Mrs. Eleanor Hume Offutt (below, left) commented on how much she loved a sip of bourbon with Mrs. Booe’s Mint Kentucky Colonel Chocolate. Ruth heard about this and set about experimenting. The bourbon ball, originally known as Bourbon Kentucky Colonels, was born in 1936.
Unfortunately, with the emergence of World War II, Ruth’s success took another hit when sugar and tin were rationed for the war efforts. People loved her candy so much, though, that they saved up their own sugar rations to bring to her so she could continue creating candy! They even saved their coffee tins so she’d have something to pack the candy in. With her usual sense of humor she included a little poem in each tin:
Uncle Sam needed our tin,
So what can I put my candy in?
It must be round and not too thick,
This little can just does the trick.
Since Uncle Sam “called on all hands”
You do without sugar, we do without cans.
Ruth ran the business from 1919 until 1945 when she handed it over to her son and it remains a family-owned and operated business to this day and remains faithful to the founders’ recipes. And she and Rebecca stayed best friends, seeing each other almost every day.
This sounds like a simple history of a candy shop. But it’s so much more than that. It’s the story of grit, determination, perseverance, and the rise of the human spirit to contend with the hardships that life so often throws at us.
Note: the newspaper clipping comes from the Courier-Journal. Much of the above history, including the black and white images, comes from a pamphlet handed out at the Rebecca Ruth shop at
3295 Versailles Rd. (US-60)
Frankfort, KY 40601
There’s also the Rebecca Ruth Candy Tours & Museum
116 East 2nd Street
Frankfort, KY 40601
(I haven’t been on the actual tour, but after reading about the history of the shop, I can’t wait to check it out to learn more about these fascinating women).
The color images are my own.