Chocolate: A Sweet Tradition
Bourbon + Chocolate: What’s Not to Love?
A perfect creamy ball of fondant, flavored with one of the world’s best bourbons, enrobed in the highest-quality chocolate and topped by a perfect pecan, the Bourbon Ball is one of Kentucky’s most famous traditions.
At Ruth Hunt Candies, they won’t give you their recipe but they will show you the original spun copper kettles filled with the luscious cooking fondant, let you inhale the aroma that assures you bourbon is a primary ingredient and give you a sample with the rich chocolate still damp from the coating process, topped with a hand-selected grade A southern pecan.
Local lore says the bourbon ball was created in the late 1930s, when a Kentucky governor suggested that chocolate and bourbon made great companions. Ruth Hunt Candies has been making them since Ruth Tharpe Hunt, the founder, started experimenting with the newly popular creation in the 1930s.
It all began in Ruth Hunt’s kitchen. Chocolate candy she made for her bridge club was so popular that friends suggested she sell it. Started in 1921, the business soon became too much for her home kitchen, so she built a small factory on US 60. With no I-64 to divert traffic from Mt. Sterling at that time, the factory became a popular stop on the east-west route. She had many repeat customers, and the name of one of her early candies, the Blue Monday, is attributed to a minister who regularly traveled the route. His favorite treat was a candy bar made with a pulled cream candy center coated in rich dark chocolate.
One day he remarked to Mrs. Hunt, “I have to have a little sweet to help me through my blue Monday” and her candy bar had its name. It has remained one of the company’s most popular products.
The copper kettles and marble slabs Ruth Hunt purchased for her business are still in use and are symbolic of a company that has seen tremendous growth and many changes, but remains steeped in tradition. Larry Kezele and his family purchased the business from the Hunt family in 1989, and he has remained committed to maintaining that tradition. He attributes his early success as a candy maker to the tutelage of Ruth Hunt’s daughter, Emily Peck, when he was learning the candy business. The company displays a collection of candy tins from years past, and Kezele delights in introducing employees who worked for Emily Peck. For many customers as well as employees, Ruth Hunt Candies is a lifelong tradition. Today, the company makes over 80 varieties of candies and sends them all over the world. They outgrew the original factory in the 1990s, and moved to larger space in Mt. Sterling. They will quickly tell you, however, that their success is due to nurturing their local roots and partnering with other Kentucky businesses.
A Kentucky Proud company, Ruth Hunt candy is sold in many local businesses throughout the state. They have been the chocolatier for Churchill Downs, had their candies featured at the Kentucky Governor’s Mansion, local and national food shows, local events and on many hostesses tables. With the popularity of bourbon skyrocketing around the country, their current role as the official chocolatier of the Woodford Reserve brand is perhaps their most famous alliance, and is taking them to a new level, says owner Kezele.
“Between our own brand and the Woodford Reserve brand, last year we sold over 100,000 boxes of bourbon balls” Kezele said. While the bourbon balls are the most famous of the bourbon chocolates, they have partnered with the distiller to produce other varieties of bourbon candy including a mint julep bourbon ball, bourbon-flavored caramels and a delicious toffee-style confection called Bourbon Butter Crunch. As a testament to the popularity of this partnership, Kezele says “on December 25th we didn’t have a box of bourbon balls left!”
From its beginnings in the original factory and store at 426 Main St. in Mt. Sterling, now designated a Kentucky historic landmark, to the display of Ruth Hunt’s Woodford Reserve Bourbon Chocolates at the Woodford Reserve Distillery in Versailles welcoming guests from the around the world, Ruth Hunt continues to make sweet traditions.
PRELUDE TO A KISS
First domesticated by indigenous peoples in Central America, premium cacao (the name for the plant and its seeds) is now grown worldwide, primarily in the tropical latitudes 30° north and south of the equator, and under cover of other plants. Small family farms grow and harvest much of the world’s cacao.
Originally ground and consumed as a bitter drink by the Maya and Aztecs, it was taken to Europe in the 16th century and, with the addition of sugar, became popular with the European aristocracy. Processing techniques developed in Europe in the 19th century lowered the cost of production and made chocolate more widely available.
Chocolate varies widely in quality and price. Inexpensive milk chocolate can have a little as 10% cacao content and still be called chocolate. Premium gourmet chocolates generally start at 47% cocoa solids for a mild rich chocolate, and dark chocolate generally contains between 70% and 85% cocoa solids.
Due to the fragility of the crop and potential difficulty of obtaining chocolate at different times from the principal growing regions, most manufacturers used blends of cacao, and there are significant flavor differences from region to region.
Recent years have seen single-source bean chocolate come onto the market, generally sold in bar form. Like fine wine, premium chocolate has particular characteristics. Generally, when tasting chocolate, experts consider the following: appearance, texture, aroma, mouthfeel and taste.
The health benefits of chocolate have been widely written about, listing phenol, antioxidant flavonoids and serotonin as beneficial derivatives.
VALENTINE’S DAY FOR RUTH
This month at Ruth Hunt Candies, the busy Christmas season is behind, but the factory is humming again as they prepare for their second busiest time of the year: Valentine’s Day. Around February 10, the trucks will start to arrive laden with colossal strawberries. In the four days before Valentine’s Day, the candy makers will dip over 40,000 strawberries in milk chocolate and white chocolate to create their most famous Valentine’s Day treat.
Owner Larry Kezele says the chocolate-covered berries arrive in the retail stores (Mt. Sterling and Lexington) two days before Valentine’s Day; are first come, first served; and always sell out. Chocolate-covered red grapes have also become a popular Valentine’s treat, and traditional assorted chocolates in all sizes of heart-shaped boxes are already in the stores.