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Tasty tale lies behind beginning of the bourbon ball in Kentucky

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By Deanna Godman

I am not much of a drinker but I recently acquired a taste for bourbon – bourbon balls, that is. I also gained a new respect for the woman who invented them.

My mom visited from Georgia recently for the first time in over a year. When she comes into town, I like to take her to a local attraction so she can get a taste of what makes Kentucky unique. We have visited the Louisville Zoo, the Kentucky Derby Museum, and the Falls of the Ohio, among other things. I was looking for something new when she mentioned seeing signs for a candy factory when she was on I-64.
The sign she saw was for the Rebecca Ruth candy factory in Frankfort. My previous experience with Rebecca Ruth was the cream candy, which I did not like. The factory tour sounded like something the whole family could enjoy though.
The tour started in what looks like an old storefront that is filled with company memorabilia. We looked around for a few minutes and then our tour guide, a woman seemingly in her early 20s, arrived to show us around the factory.
The first room is where the candy is cooked in a copper pot, using the same equipment that has been used for the majority of the life of the company. The base for all the candies is made here, and flavorings are added later. Fudge is cooled and cut on a large marble table. The hooks for the cream pulled candy still contained bits of candy left from the batch made that morning. Our tour was at the end of the day, and minus the bits of candy that were left behind, the room could have been in a museum dedicated to candy making in the 1920s.
The largest room in the factory contains the Lucy and Ethel style conveyer belt where employees still hand sort the candies. This is also the room with the large mixers where flavorings such as mint, peanut butter and bourbon are added to the candy dough. The candy goes through a chocolate waterfall on the conveyer belt. Extra touches such as pecans and sprinkles are added by hand.
The candies are packed into either boxes or bags at the end of the line. The perfect, ready-to-sell candy is placed in boxes by weight. The candies with broken pecans or other physical imperfections are placed in bags and sold in the factory shop at a discount.
Two schoolteachers, Rebecca Gooch and Ruth Booe, started Rebecca Ruth Candies in 1919. After several years, Gooch sold her interest to Booe and moved away. Booe was widowed with a young son and supported her family with her business.
One legendary piece of equipment at the factory is known as Edna’s table. The marble slab table was salvaged from the bar of the Frankfort hotel that had burned. She purchased the table for $10. In 1933, Booe’s home, where she made her candies and stored her equipment, burned to the ground. The only thing that survived was the marble table. Instead of seeing it as a bad omen, Booe saw the table as a good luck charm that had survived two fires. With a $50 loan from a family friend, Booe was able to rebuild her business.
Booe worked for two years to perfect her recipe for bourbon balls, which she began selling around 1938.
At the end of the tour, guests have a choice between a bourbon ball and a Kentucky Colonel, which is a mix mint, bourbon and pecans. The Kentucky Colonel was my pick, and I was pleased with the mix of flavors. We also bought a bag of imperfect bourbon balls. The first one was overwhelming, but we quickly became fans. To our great surprise, the bag contained multiple flavors of bourbon balls, something I did not even realize existed.
Ruth Booe was a strong woman with a lot of determination. I went into the tour expecting to taste a little candy, and came out with great admiration for the founder.