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What makes great bourbon. August 17, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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What do great caves and great bourbon have in common?

Give up? It’s limestone-filtered water.

Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood just got back from a road trip from Pennsylvania through Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and back through Maryland and West Virginia to Hawk’s Haven, our cottage home in scenic PA. This is on the whole a beautiful route, with lots of mountains and lots of water. But not all the water was beautiful, to say the least. In many of these states, it resembled red sludge.

Not so in Kentucky’s bluegrass country, home to our friend Ben’s maternal Simms family, to thoroughbred race horses, and to bourbon. And also home to many wonderful caves, the most majestic being Mammoth Cave. As a child, our friend Ben spent many happy hours touring the caves, oohing and aahing at the giant stalactites and stalagmites, and stopping at roadside stands to buy smaller versions for my rock collection. (A practice now strictly forbidden.)

But it never would have occurred to me that the action of water on limestone that created the great caves of Kentucky would also have made it possible to produce bourbon, America’s only native spirit. True, the streams Silence and I saw on this part of our trip were crystal-clear. But it was only while viewing the excellent and informative displays at Bardstown’s Bourbon Heritage Center that I finally made the connection. (Thank you, Heaven Hill, for a truly marvelous museum.)

As the label on my prized bottle of Wathen’s Single Barrel Straight Bourbon Whiskey explains, “Pristine water, naturally filtered through Kentucky’s underground limestone deposits, is used exclusively in the 100% copper distilling process. The finest cereal grains—corn, rye, and malted barley—are selected, milled and proportioned to exacting standards to produce a mash that awaits the magic of the fermentation process. The Medley family yeast, a zealously guarded secret handed down through eight generations, is then added to the mash. After double distilling, the whiskey is then stored in the finest charred new white oak barrels and allowed to age unhurried to its peak of flavor.” (The charred barrels are what give bourbon its distinctive caramel color.)

Lest one wonder about the “eight generations” claim, a geneaology of the Wathen and Medley families dating back to the 1720s is thoughtfully provided on the label. Our friend Ben, a Wathen relative whose Kentucky ancestry also dates back to the 1700s, can only approve.

But I digress. Caves, bourbon, beautiful horses: Kentucky’s bluegrass region has it all. Next time you plan a trip that takes you within driving distance of Bardstown, make a point of stopping. Head to the Bourbon Heritage Center for a free tour and tasting (you’ll learn about the different types of bourbon and get our friend Ben’s favorite treat, a chocolate-coated bourbon ball, yum).

Then enjoy lunch or supper at the historic Talbott Tavern, where you might share a table with the ghosts of Lewis and Clark, John James Audubon, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, King Louis Philippe of France, or many another luminary who stayed and ate there. Try their scrumptious fried green tomatoes and two of Kentucky’s signature dishes, burgoo (a type of stew) and hot brown (a turkey and cheese dish). Not to mention chess pie for dessert.

The Talbott Tavern has an extensive bourbon selection, including flights, where you can try three bourbons of your choice and compare them. And while you’re in the area, you might want to try the water.


Bring on the bourbon balls. December 2, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. There are two holiday specialties that you need to age to greatness before giving or serving them, bourbon balls and fruitcake, so I plan to give you recipes for both this week. I’ll start with our favorite, bourbon balls. If you’re only familiar with bourbon balls (or rum balls) as a crushed-cookie-and-nut concoction, or not familiar with them at all, you’ll die of happiness when you try a real bourbon ball—and they’re super-easy to make!

Our friend Ben’s beloved Mama was a Kentucky native, and OFB grew up with bourbon balls as a holiday tradition. But when Ben was a child, you bought your bourbon balls from the lady who invented them, Ruth Hanly Booe, whose Rebecca Ruth Candies was (and is) a landmark in Frankfort, Kentucky’s capital. The store and candy factory is located in a modest white clapboard house whose exterior gives no hint of the delights inside. If you live near Frankfort or are traveling that way, you can stop by for a factory tour and samples any month of the year except December, when the folks at Rebecca Ruth are frantically cranking out the holiday favorite and need to concentrate on production. But don’t despair. You can still buy bourbon balls at the home store or one of several locations in the Frankfort area, or by mail order at www.rebeccaruth.com. And yes, for you bourbon-ball fanatics, they are available year-round.

Our friend Ben and I were reminded of bourbon balls on our way back from Nashville to Pennsylvania after a Thanksgiving with family. That’s because we stopped en route home in Bardstown, Kentucky, the bourbon distillery capital of the world, just a stone’s throw from Springfield, Kentucky, where OFB’s beloved grandparents lived and he spent his happiest childhood hours. But bourbon isn’t all Bardstown (named for Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon, for reasons unknown to us) has to offer. There’s a railroad museum, Civil War museum, and My Old Kentucky Home, the lovely brick house where Stephen Foster was inspired to write his best-known song. (You can tour the house, actually called Federal Hill, and, if you’re a Stephen Foster fan, attend a performance of “Stephen Foster: The Musical.”) Bardstown also has antiques stores and lovely bed and breakfasts, including our all-time favorite, the Old Talbott Tavern.

We kicked off our stop in Bardstown with a late lunch at the historic Talbott Tavern, “the oldest western stagecoach stop in America,” established in 1779 and host to such folks as Abraham Lincoln, Daniel Boone, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, George Rogers Clark, and France’s King Louis Philippe and his entourage, who holed up in the Talbott Tavern after escaping the Terror (as the French Revolution came to be called because of its brutality) and whiled away the time painting murals on the walls of the upstairs guest rooms. You can even see bullet holes supposedly left by Jesse James. (Read all about it at their website, www.talbotts.com.)

We were seated in the ancient taproom, aka the Bourbon Bar, and ordered planter’s punch—a concoction of bourbon, orange juice, and grenadine that’s out of this world—to put ourselves in the appropriate frame of mind. Our friend Ben’s mama simply adored one of the Talbott Tavern’s specialties, a turkey dish called the Hot Brown, and Ben ordered that in her honor. (He passed on the burgoo, the classic Kentucky stew that is to Kentucky as gumbo is to Louisiana, and was traditionally made with squirrel as one of its numerous ingredients.) Being a vegetarian, I simply ordered a Swiss cheese club, which they served with their signature fried green tomatoes. Normally, we’d have finished our repast with another Talbott Tavern specialty, chess pie, which we both love, but time was pressing and we were determined to make it to the Bourbon Heritage Center in time to take a distillery tour.

Whew! We just squeaked in to the Heritage Center in time to take their last tour of the day (at 4 p.m., though the Center itself is open ’til 6). Operated by Heaven Hill Distilleries, the handsome building is actually made from the same materials used to produce bourbon—limestone, white oak, and copper. We saw a film about the origins of bourbon and Heaven Hill, then toured one of the massive warehouses where the great barrels of charred white oak work their alchemy to turn clear corn likker (that’s what the mountain folk make in their stills) into rich amber bourbon.

Back at the Heritage Center, we toured the exhibits, then watched a short film on Parker Beam, Heaven Hill’s master distiller, before heading into a barrel-shaped room to taste two of Heaven Hill’s great bourbons, Evan Williams Single Barrel and Elijah Craig 18-Year-Old Single Barrel. Our tour guide gave us a crash course on how to evaluate a bourbon by color, scent, and taste, then had us add a bit of branch water to each glass before sampling its contents. Heaven Hill’s flagship brand is what OFB’s parents drank, and what we still typically drink at Hawk’s Haven in our Manhattans (OFB) and bourbon-and-Cokes (Silence). But these bourbons, and especially the Elijah Craig, simply blew us away. For special occasions, we might treat ourselves to a bottle of Wild Turkey or Maker’s Mark (also stops, with Jim Beam and others, on the self-guided Bourbon Heritage Trail). But we came home with a bottle of Evan Williams Single Barrel, and have put the Elijah Craig 18-Year-Old on our Christmas list. (Are you reading this, Santa?!) What sets these bourbons apart? Their rich, luscious cream-vanilla-caramel overtones and smooth finish. Even I, who wouldn’t think of drinking bourbon straight, enjoyed them immensely.

After our tasting, we were treated to bourbon balls as a final gesture of appreciation. Yum! These were also the real thing—bourbon-imbued fondant enrobed in dark chocolate with a pecan on top, just like the classic Rebecca Ruth Candies of OFB’s childhood. And yes, you can buy them online, along with the various Heaven Hill premium bourbons and other treats, at the Bourbon Heritage Center website, www.bourbonheritagecenter.com. (Oh, and did I mention that the tour and tastings were free?)

Which brings me to the recipes. Yes, you can buy authentic Kentucky bourbon balls from Rebecca Ruth or the Bourbon Heritage Center. But you can also make them yourself. Our friend Ben’s mama made them one year, and OFB tells me that they were simply delicious. She adapted the recipe for Chocolate Coated Fondant Balls from the much-used, spattered, and battered 1943 edition of The Joy of Cooking, which had been passed down from her mother and which is now proudly displayed, battered and spineless as it is, in my own cookbook collection. This book came out back in the distant day when nobody thought to add how many pieces you’d make or how many people a recipe would serve. But its author, Irma S. Rombauer, certainly knew how to write some lively prose! I’ll let her describe her chocolate-covered fondant balls for herself: “Tempting, opulent-looking—not for reducers. This candy is the specialty of a very clever hostess, whose parties seem incomplete without them. Her son calls them ‘knockout drops’ because he once indulged in thirteen and suffered the consequences.”

This year, I’ll be making bourbon balls for our friend Ben and our holiday guests. But I’ll be using a variation of a recipe from a book OFB gave me for Christmas two years ago, The Book of Bourbon. Because I’m melding aspects of this recipe with parts of The Joy of Cooking‘s recipe and using modern conveniences, I’ll simply call these Kentucky Bourbon Balls. Make, enjoy, but please don’t eat them until Christmas! That will give the bourbon plenty of time to permeate the candy. Talk about heaven!

         Kentucky Bourbon Balls

1 box (1 pound) confectioners’ sugar

1 stick (8 tablespoons) butter, at room temperature

3 tablespoons 100 proof bourbon

6 ounces dark chocolate for coating

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

45 plump, perfect pecan halves

Mix the confectioners’ sugar, bourbon, and butter until thoroughly blended. Shape into 1-inch balls. Set on wax paper on a tray in the refrigerator to chill. Melt the dark coating chocolate in a double boiler. (If you can’t find coating chocolate, you can substitute semisweet chocolate morsels  and 1/2 ounce grated paraffin.) Add the vanilla once the chocolate has melted. Allow the chocolate to cool slightly; it should still be fluid. Take the fondant balls out of the fridge and, using a fork or toothpick, dip each one into the chocolate until completely coated, then return them to the wax paper. Press a pecan half into the top of each bourbon ball. Once you have coated all the balls, store them in a tin or other airtight container in a cool place, separating each layer with wax paper, to give the bourbon time to permeate the candy. Makes about 45 bourbon balls.

Okay, I know that some of you simply adore those crushed-cookie bourbon or rum balls. They’re the only ones our friend Ben and I have encountered since moving to Pennsylvania. While we don’t think they compare with real bourbon balls, we admit that they’re still good. So here’s a recipe for them from The Book of Bourbon:

          Chocolate Tennessee Whiskey Balls

2 cups finely ground chocolate cookie crumbs (from one 9-ounce box of Famous Wafers or other chocolate wafers)

1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar

3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1 cup finely chopped pecans or walnuts

1/2 cup Tennessee whiskey [aka Jack Daniels]

3 tablespoons light corn syrup [Karo, please]

1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder mixed with 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar, for coating

In a bowl, combine the cookie crumbs, confectioners’ sugar, cocoa and nuts, and stir until uniformly mixed. Add the Tennessee whiskey and corn syrup and mix until evenly moist and sticky. Place the cocoa-and-confectioners’-sugar mixture on a shallow plate. Shape the chocolate mixture into 3/4-inch balls and roll each one in the cocoa-and-sugar mixture. Transfer to a tin, separating each layer with wax paper. Cover and store in a cool place. Makes about 6 dozen.

All righty, then! Time to start your holiday food preparations with a bang. I’ll be back with recipes for fruitcake, eggnog, and many another holiday treat as the month goes on. 

             ‘Til next time,


This just in: I just discovered another commercial source of classic bourbon balls, Dad’s World Famous Chocolate Bourbon Balls (www.dadsbourbonballs.com). We haven’t tried these; if you have, please let us know what you think!