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Kansas City maker of bourbon balls wants them ‘out of the Christmas tins’ for a year-round treat

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
Lisa Fitch of Bootleg Bourbon Balls is on a mission to bring the Kentucky delicacy to Kansas City. Fitch's store is currently online, and she attends pop-ups (pictured above) to sell her product.

Bourbon Balls are traditionally a southern delicacy, but Lisa Fitch of Bootleg Bourbon Balls is on a mission to make them a Kansas City delicacy, too.

Lisa Fitch is a proud Kansas Citian with Midwestern roots, but there is one Southern holiday candy that holds a special place in her heart: bourbon balls.

The chocolatey, boozy sweets, which are often eaten or given as gifts during winter holidays, originally hail from Kentucky. But Fitch remembers making them as a child with her mother and grandmother. Her grandmother even had her own bourbon balls recipe.

“It is a specific thing and it's a family recipe, so we made it for years,” says Fitch. “We'd made it for friends and family for many years. And then, all of a sudden, it started going beyond that.”

When she retired from her career as a women’s health nurse practitioner in 2015, Fitch decided to get the bourbon ball venture rolling. After a visit to Kentucky, Fitch started experimenting with her own recipes in an attempt to make Kansas City’s own bourbon ball.

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
The Bootleg Bourbon Balls Kansas City Spirited sampling features spirits from Kansas City distilleries. Bourbon balls were invented in Kentucky, but Lisa Fitch is trying to put a Kansas City spin on them.

The history of the Kentucky bourbon ball

On Fitch’s inspiration trip to Kentucky, she went to the home of bourbon balls: Rebecca Ruth’s Chocolates, a famous candy store in Frankfort. According to the store’s website, Rebecca Ruth was founded in 1919 by two female entrepreneurs. In a time when women-owned businesses were uncommon, Ruth Hanly Booe and Rebecca Gooch decided they were over their jobs as substitute teachers, and ventured into the candy enterprise.

“Ruth and Rebecca had a goodly amount of imagination and an uncommon amount of nerve,” the Rebecca Ruth website boasts. “It was not unusual for them to strike up a conversation on a street corner or in a silent movie house and loudly extol the virtue of a wonderful new candy called Rebecca Ruth, which they had ‘tried.’”

According to the Kentucky Historical Society, the women purchased a closed barroom in the Old Frankfort Hotel during the thick of Prohibition, which was in effect nationwide from 1920 to 1933.

The women experienced several hardships over the next several years, and in 1929, Gooch got married and sold her shares of the company to Hanly Booe. Though there are conflicting stories of how bourbon balls came to be, the Rebecca Ruth website says “the idea of mixing candy and bourbon together was accidentally suggested by a dignitary, Eleanor Hume Offutt, at Frankfort's sesquicentennial celebration in 1936.”

“Mrs. Booe worked on the recipe for two years before perfecting the still-secret process for blending bourbon and candy. The unique candy soon became popular and sales boomed until World War II,” the website says.

KCUR 89.3
Lisa Fitch squeezes caramel onto a batch of bourbon balls. Her business, Bootleg Bourbon Balls, is online, but she rents a commercial kitchen in the River Market.

Kansas City bourbon balls and bootleggers 

Though there really isn’t a Kansas City tie to bourbon balls (unless you count those Kansas Citians who make them as a holiday tradition), Fitch is on a mission to create one.

Fitch officially started her business six years ago, naming it Bootleg Bourbon Balls in a nod to Kansas City’s own Prohibition days.

“We always say, if the bootleggers had only thought to conceal their liquor so well — in a bourbon ball instead of, you know, in their bootleg,” says Fitch.

She dubs her candies, “Notoriously Naughty Chocolates.” Kansas Citians were notoriously naughty during Prohibition, when political boss Tom Pendergast ruled the town.

Corrupt politicians even found ways to profit from legal liquor, says Lisa Shockley, the Kansas City Museum's curator of collections. Any doctor who wanted to write a prescription for alcohol — whisky or brandy — and any pharmacy that wanted to be able to fill the prescription had to have a special license, Shockley said in an email to KCUR.

“These licenses were limited to so many a year,” she said. “The reality in KC is that most of those licenses went to friends of Pendergast, or at least to people who ‘knew someone.’ There was a tremendous amount of money to be made.”

While Kansas City authorities occasionally raided people thought to be bootlegging, Shockley said, “there was very little enforcement of Prohibition laws in Kansas City.”

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
Lisa Fitch (left) and longtime friend Cinda Kessler at a pop-up event. Kessler works with Fitch for Bootleg Bourbon Balls.

Creating Kansas City’s own bourbon ball 

Fitch has put a lot of time into perfecting her bourbon ball recipe, and she has a growing list of flavors to try: like the Hotsy Totsy, made with McCormick Platte Valley FireShine Cinnamon Liqueur, or the Guilty Pleasure, made with Tom’s Town Pendergast Royal Gold Bourbon.

All Bootleg Bourbon Balls are handmade from start to finish, which Fitch says differentiates them from the famous Rebecca Ruth bourbon balls and many other manufactured Kentucky versions.

“I would say that the small, fresh batches, and the fact that we have quite a different variety of bourbon balls that we're offering — and of course we're adding to our collection every year by adding on new distilleries,” says Fitch. “I think that's what definitely sets us apart.”

Bootleg Bourbon Balls also lack the original cream filling found in Rebecca Ruth’s secret recipe, and Fitch says hers are a little less sweet.

“I think we've found a perfect blend of the chocolate and the pecans and the bourbon that's very pleasing to the palate,” she says.

With the exception of her chocolate, which is imported from France, nearly every other ingredient is from Kansas City or Missouri.

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
Lisa Fitch rolls a bourbon ball at the commercial kitchen she rents in the River Market. Fitch says she has lost count of how many batches of bourbon balls she has made this month. They are all made by hand, and she says sales skyrocket during the winter holidays.

Fitch partners with local distilleries like Tom’s Town or Lifted Spirits by using their spirits in her recipes. Her goal is for her bourbon balls to be served and sold on local distillery tours by 2023, the same way other bourbon balls are featured at some distilleries in Kentucky.

“I'm very proud of our city and what we have to offer, and so I want to highlight and work with local businesses that support me as well,” says Fitch.

And although her bourbon ball tradition stems from Christmastime, she wants Kansas Citians to incorporate them into their celebrations year-round.

“That was a popular thing back in the days, to make bourbon balls and rum balls and put them in the Christmas tins and then hide them away,” says Fitch. “I was always a part of that and I thought, you know, it's time that bourbon balls and rum balls came out of the Christmas tins of years past and into (the) mainstream, because you can use them to celebrate all of life's celebrations.”

Fitch sells Bootleg Bourbon Balls online or at pop-ups. She will be at a free tasting and discussion on the history of bourbon balls from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 10, at the Kansas City Museum, 3218 Gladstone Blvd., Kansas City, Missouri.

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga is a freelance reporter for KCUR 89.3.
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