For Sweet Kentucky Bourbon Balls, The State's Famed Liquor Is The Star

Kentucky is a beautiful state known for many things, from horse racing to the twangs of Bluegrass music. Yet, one of its most celebrated treasures is undoubtedly its distillery industry. Kentucky proudly houses over 11.4 million barrels of aged bourbon whiskey. Throughout the years, Kentuckians have ingeniously found various creative uses for bourbon beyond its obvious function as a drink. In 1938, a confectioner by the name of Ruth Hanly Booe invented a new, spherical candy infused with bourbon, aptly named "bourbon balls". These novel confections quickly gained popularity and are now considered a delicacy throughout the state.

Kentucky bourbon balls (sometimes called tipsies) are rather simple: a blend of cookie crumbs generously coated with cocoa powder, complemented by chopped pecans, syrups, confectioners' sugar, and a touch of Kentucky bourbon rolled into spheres. Along with having a straightforward recipe, they require no baking, which makes them a treat that can be made at home by just about anyone. Despite its relative simplicity, these bourbon balls look elegant and expensive enough that they've become a popular choice for souvenirs and gifts. A box of these little delights can command a surprisingly high price, fetching as much as $55.

However, since bourbon balls are unbaked, the alcohol remains fully intact and isn't evaporated away like in many other foods containing spirits. In other words, when you enjoy a bourbon ball, you'll experience the full strength of the booze. This is why bourbon balls are exclusively intended for adults.

Why does bourbon work so well in this recipe?

The shining star of this recipe is bourbon, and it plays a role that goes far beyond merely providing a pleasant buzz after a few bites. Bourbon takes center stage as the primary flavor agent, infusing the confection with a rich, intricate taste thanks to its alcoholic heat and the subtle notes of vanilla and oak that come from its barrel-aging process. When combined with the nutty essence of pecans and the bittersweet cocoa powder, the result is a remarkably complex and rich combination of flavors that dance on your taste buds.

However, don't feel restricted to using only bourbon in this recipe. Since it's dead simple to make, there have been countless variations on classic bourbon balls over the years. For example, take Manhattan balls, which start with the classic bourbon base but kick things up a notch with a couple more shots of bourbon, a dash of vermouth, and a touch of cocktail bitters. With the addition of just two extra ingredients, the boozy chocolate balls no longer evoke rural Kentucky but instead offer the complex, highball-inspired flavors of New York.