This 100+-year-old Kentucky candy shop invented bourbon balls. Here's how they're made
Frankfort, Kentucky —You can smell the chocolate the minute you walk into Rebecca Ruth Candy's white cottage headquarters in Frankfort.
Caramel-colored walls surround a small dining area and a museum room. The main shop features glass cases lined with dozens of chocolates: molded horse heads of dark and white chocolate, coconut creams, raspberry jellies, pretzel turtles, brittle and old-fashioned Kentucky cream pulled candy.
Then there are the refrigerators, filled with boxes and boxes of seven kinds of bourbon-filled candies from dark chocolate-covered bourbon balls to bourbon caramels, cherries, and truffles.
Just beyond the retail counter and those chocolate-filled refrigerators is the factory where all the chocolate is made on equipment dating back to the 1960s: marble slabs, copper pots and a chocolate conveyor belt straight out of "I Love Lucy."
It's a dream of a shop for anyone with a sweet tooth. And for anyone who loves the iconic sweet boozy treat known as the bourbon ball, it all started at Rebecca Ruth's.
The chocolate shop at 116 E. Second St. in Frankfort, Kentucky has been making more than 100 kinds of chocolate candy for more than 100 years. Each year, 35 employees make and sell 5 million pieces of chocolate candy, both in-person and from shipments sent all over the country.
About 3 million of those 5 million pieces of candy are the iconic sweet boozy treat known as the bourbon ball, which Rebecca Ruth Candy invented more than 80 years ago in 1938.
The same creativity and love for chocolate that inspired company founder Ruth Booe to invent the iconic bourbon ball lives on today through her grandson and current owner, Charles Booe, who is fiercely proud of his chocolate and family's legacy.
"Typically when we're developing a piece of candy, we go to a lot of trouble to figure out the best way to do it right," he said. "My grandmother worked on the recipe for bourbon balls, for instance, for two years before it was released. We don't tend to have to go backward and fix things that are broke because they're already functional before we bring them out."
'Every piece of chocolate has to be perfect'
All 5 million pieces of candy sold are made with incredible care, from the creamed pull candy pulled by hand on a metal hook to the meticulously cut bourbon balls.
Most chocolates are made on a series of machines connected by a large conveyor belt. After bourbon ball dough is mixed in a giant mixer, it's fed into an extruder, which cuts it with a wire into perfect spheres. The balls then roll through not one but two layers of base chocolate to cover the bottom before an enrober pours dark chocolate on top.
Two employees sit in the middle of the room with large boxes of pecans, individually placing them on top of the chocolates, which then roll through a cooler before arriving at the end of the line at the "I Love Lucy" station. Here, two more employees quickly pick out any imperfect chocolates to put in a "boo boo bag" and load the other bourbon balls into 16-ounce boxes, which are then sealed in plastic and prepped for shipment.
Rebecca Ruth's bourbon balls are made with Evan Williams 100-proof bourbon with a strong oak flavor. Hints of earthy cocoa, creamy vanilla and caramel from the chocolate balance out the sweet boozy treat.
The ingredients may sound straightforward, but getting the candy just right is not. Every piece of chocolate has to be perfect, Charles told the Courier Journal.
"The dark chocolate has to have some presence, it can't be waxy chocolate like a lot of people use. It has to have some flavor to it," he said. "And it all has to be balanced so that when you bite into it, it gets through a few different phases of your palate."
Bourbon balls, now synonymous with Kentucky, are made at confectionaries across the state and Charles said that while people have different opinions on how bourbon balls should be eaten, his way is best.
He likes to pop the whole candy into his mouth and let it warm on the tongue and get soft. Then you bite into it, pause for the chocolate aromas to hit your nasal cavity, and then chew and swallow.
Basically, he said, you want to savor it.
"You have to take the time to eat it slowly," he said, "which is hard to do."
More:7 places in Louisville where you can buy bourbon balls, and a recipe to try at home
How a chance meeting led to the creation of bourbon balls
Rebecca Ruth Candy was founded in 1919 by Rebecca Gooch and Ruth Hanly Booe, two young women in their 20's. While a lot of people underestimated the young female entrepreneurs, they began by dipping chocolates in a rented bar room at the Frankfort Hotel during prohibition, promoting the chocolates themselves, with decent success.
That all changed a few years later when Ruth Hanly married Douglas Booe in 1924 and had a son, John Charles Booe, in 1927. Douglas died a few months later. Chocolate partner Rebecca decided to get married in 1929 and sold her portion of the business back to Ruth.
Just 10 years after founding Rebecca Ruth Candy, Ruth became a single mother and sole owner of the company just as the Great Depression hit the U.S.
Candy orders dropped from boxes of sweets to single pieces. With orders waning, Ruth used the downtime to experiment and invented the Ruth's Mint Kentucky Colonel, the most famous chocolate at the time. Even with that success, the years were hard: a fire in 1933 destroyed everything at Ruth's home and small factory except a marble slab she used to temper chocolate, and she had to start from scratch again.
But a chance meeting in 1936 turned her world around and formed the idea for the bourbon ball as we know it today.
A dignitary at Frankfort's sesquicentennial celebration gave Ruth the idea of mixing candy and bourbon together. She diligently worked on a recipe for two years before debuting her bourbon balls in 1938.
Unsurprisingly, they were a wild success. They became so popular that customers would bring Ruth their sugar rations and coffee tins during World War II just so they could get some chocolates.
"My grandmother kept up with a lot of people," Charles said. "Frank Sinatra bought candy here. Fred Astaire bought candy. Just all kinds of celebrities were part of her life."
An expansion on the way and the future of Rebecca Ruth Candy
Ruth retired in 1964, passing the business to her son John, who developed the company's wholesale business and additional liquor-filled chocolates, expanded the factory, and increased candy production. He sold the business to his son, current owner Charles Booe, in 1997. Charles runs the candy shop and was recently joined by his daughter Sarah Booe when she graduated from college in 2020.
Over the last few years, Charles has expanded the company's production facility, including adding a 40,000-square-foot warehouse across town and a new retail store at 629 Versailles Road, bringing the total number of Rebecca Ruth Candy retail shops to three. A 5,000-square-foot expansion is being added to the factory headquarters to allow for more room for tours. Though the expansion has been in the works for decades, Charles hopes to complete it in the next year or so.
As for other retail locations, he's not sure Frankfort needs more than three.
"I think that's pretty well balanced out," he said. "But it depends what the new blood wants to do, you know. My son's still in college, so he may or may not come into the business and my daughter has plenty of ideas of what she might want to try."
Throughout the century, one thing in the Booe family that doesn't change: their love of chocolate.
"Come and take a tour, it's a very unique experience," Charles said. "And of course, buy some chocolates while you're here. They're not your regular big-box type of chocolates."
Features reporter Dahlia Ghabour covers food, dining trends and restaurants in the Louisville area. Send tips on new places or story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @dghabour.
Rebecca Ruth Candy
WHAT: Rebecca Ruth Candy is a chocolate company founded in Frankfort, Kentucky in 1919 by two women, Ruth Hanly Booe and Rebecca Gooch. The shop famously invented bourbon balls in 1938 and is now owned by Ruth Booe's grandson, Charles.
WHERE: There are three retail stores: 116 E. Second St., 3296 Versailles Road and 629 Versailles Road, all in Frankfort, Kentucky.
TOURS: Tours at the factory at 116 E. Second St. are held Monday to Saturday at 10:30 a.m., 11 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m., 2 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. Tours are $6 for adults and $4 for children under 18 and can be booked on Trip Advisor.
MORE INFORMATION: To order chocolates or for more information, visit rebeccaruthonline.com.