By Charles Pearl,
Two messages were left for Charlie Booe regarding bourbon ball candy. But Booe — president of the 99-year-old family business, Rebecca Ruth Candy — didn’t call back. In mid-afternoon, the caller realized he had Booe’s old cell number when he received an anonymous text.
The text read, “Hello, I’ve gotten a couple of voicemails trying to reach a Charlie, but you have the wrong number. I don’t like bourbon, but I sure love Rebecca Ruth bourbon balls! They’re the only ones I’ll eat. Good luck finding Charlie.”
Charlie — or Charles as he prefers for business purposes — was easily found by calling Rebecca Ruth Candy store on East Second Street.
His late grandmother, Ruth Hanly Booe (1891-1973) is known as “The Mother of Bourbon Balls,” according to a state historical marker honoring her in front of the large Rebecca Ruth retail store, museum and candy-manufacturing facility.
Friends Ruth Hanly and Rebecca Gooch left teaching jobs in 1919 to found Rebecca Ruth Candy. Their first store was in the Frankfort Hotel’s barroom, which was closed due to Prohibition.
Rumors began flying that the women were soaking nuts and fruits in liquor and selling liquor-laced chocolates from the barroom. “The rumors were untrue but lots of people came in to buy chocolates,” Charles Booe says
The two were successful entrepreneurs before women gained the right to vote, the historical sign states. “In 1929, Gooch sold her half of the business to widow Booe.” (Her husband, Charles Douglas Booe, served in World War I and died from a lung disease when their only son, John, was an infant.)
The state marker says Ruth Booe “is credited as the inventor of the ‘Bourbon Ball,’ a world-famous confection, and the ‘Mint Kentucky Colonel.’ Her business savvy saw the company through a factory fire, the Great Depression, and sugar rationing during World War II.”
In 1936 during Frankfort’s 150th birthday celebration, Ruth Booe attended a dinner party at the Governor’s Mansion. She was asked to bring Mint Kentucky Colonels, “a chocolate my grandmother was famous for at that time,” Charles Booe says. “Eleanor Hume Offutt, a dignitary at the event, said the two best tastes in the world were a sip of Kentucky bourbon and a bite of Ruth’s Mint Kentucky Colonel chocolate.”
Bourbon balls’ 80th birthday
Offutt’s comment inspired Ruth Booe to combine her mint candy with bourbon to create the “single best taste in the world.” She worked on the formula two years before perfecting the still secret process of blending bourbon and chocolate candy.
Today, Rebecca Ruth Candy in Frankfort makes an estimated 5 million pieces of candy a year, of which 3 million are bourbon balls.
Besides the original Rebecca Ruth bourbon balls, the local company makes bourbon balls for Buffalo Trace, Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, Evan Williams and others. “Each has its own special recipe,” Charles Booe says.
“We also make other bourbon-themed chocolates, including caramels, brittle, toffee, coffee, truffles, cherries and mint juleps.”
When Ruth Booe retired in 1964, her son, John, took over the business at her request. An accountant for Dupont Corporation in New York, he came home and ran Rebecca Ruth until 1997 when he sold the business to son, Charles. But John continued working until an illness in 2011 forced him to quit. He died in 2012.
John broadened the line of liquor chocolates to include rum, scotch and cognac, as well as Kentucky Irish Coffee.
Ruth died in 1973 and remained close friends with Rebecca Gooch to the end.
Guided 20-minute tours of the candy factory are offered for $5 Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. until noon; and 1 until 5:30 p.m. The retail store is open seven days a week, 10 a.m. until 6 p.m.
Emily Noonan, retail store manager, loves her job because “I get to do a little bit of everything. It’s fun getting to try new candies, and we’re always coming up with something new. It’s a small business but everybody knows about Rebecca Ruth.”
Employee Teresa Goodin, starting a mid-morning tour Sept. 19, said chocolate originates from cacao trees, which are fruit trees. “The trees need a very warm climate so they’re mainly found along the equator.”
Tiny but mighty kitchen
The Rebecca Ruth kitchen is “tiny but mighty” with millions of pieces of candy produced. “We cook in large copper pots because copper heats without scorching the candy.” After dough is formed in a mixer, bourbon and other flavorings are added. One-hundred proof Evan Williams goes into Rebecca Ruth bourbon balls. A large dough ball then goes to an extruder, and pieces of candy are precisely cut and bathed in chocolate on a conveyor line. Each Rebecca Ruth bourbon ball is then hand-decorated with a pecan on top, and after being cooled is hand-packed in attractive boxes.
Bourbon balls not meeting perfection are sold at a discount as “boo-boos” — a play on the family name.
Today, Charles Booe and his family continue to work in the candy business, along with 25 other employees. His wife, Risa, originally from Thailand, works in retail store management, training employees. “She floats between stores (the main one and a smaller one on Versailles Road),” Charles says.
Their children – Sarah, a junior at the University of Kentucky, and John, also known as Alex, a senior at Frankfort High School – are the fourth generation of Booes to work at Rebecca Ruth.
“Sarah is on an academic scholarship at UK,” Charles says. “She’s studying business and marketing and probably preparing herself to be involved in the family business.
“John still has time to decide what he wants to do. He helps in retail after school. He’s charismatic and gets applause every time he gives a tour.”
The popularity of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail helps the bourbon candy business, Charles says. “We’ve seen increases every year in the last eight years, both in tourism and product sales. That’s why we’re adding on to our main facility.”
All Rebecca Ruth Chocolates can be ordered online at www.rebeccaruthonline.com.