Food & Drink

Kentucky Bourbon Balls, Three Ways

Try a few variations on these bite-size, boozy Southern confections


“A subterranean adventure at Mammoth Cave National Park, home of the world’s longest-known cave system with more than four hundred miles mapped and explored to date, is likely to end in one thing: a post-spelunking sipping tour on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, where the state’s historic distilleries have been producing the distinctive corn-based, barrel-aged whiskey since the 1780s,” writes Lydia Ly in her new cookbook, The National Parks Cookbook : The Best Recipes from (and Inspired by) America’s National Parks.

Consider these Kentucky bourbon balls an easier way to enjoy America’s signature spirit. The no-bake Southern treat was invented in 1938 by Ruth Hanly Booe of Rebecca Ruth Candies (known today as Rebecca Ruth Chocolates). She unveiled her bite-size, booze-infused candy after two years of perfecting the recipe, and they became such a hit that Kentucky and bourbon balls are now inextricably linked.

“Although the original recipe is still a secret, you’ll find that bourbon balls are as unique as their star ingredient, with every Kentucky household having their own way of making them,” Ly continues. Below are three different ways you can coat your batch for a holiday spread or your next Derby party.


  • Kentucky Bourbon Balls, Three Ways (Yield: 40 balls)

  • For the bourbon balls:

    • 1 cup pecans, toasted and finely chopped

    • ⅓ cup bourbon (100-proof Kentucky bourbon preferred)

    • 8 tbsp. (1 stick) butter, at room temperature

    • 3½ cups powdered sugar

  • For coating variation 1:

    • 2½ cups semisweet chocolate chips

    • 2 tbsp. coconut oil

    • ⅓ cup pecans, toasted and finely chopped

  • For coating variation 2:

    • 1½ cups powdered sugar

  • For coating variation 3:

    • ¾ cup powdered sugar

    • ¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder


  1. Make the bourbon balls: In a small shallow dish, combine the pecans and bourbon and soak overnight, stirring occasionally to make sure all the pecans are evenly soaked.

  2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, or in a large bowl and using a handheld electric mixer, beat the butter on medium speed until creamy. Gradually add the powdered sugar and continue beating until the mixture is dry and crumbly.

  3. Add the soaked pecans and any remaining bourbon and beat for a few seconds on low speed until well incorporated. Refrigerate the mixture for 1 hour. Meanwhile, line two half-sheet pans with parchment paper and set aside. Once the mixture is chilled, using a small cookie scoop, scoop 1-inch balls and arrange them on the prepared sheet pans. Freeze for 1 hour until firm.

  4. Coat the bourbon balls using coating variation 1: In a medium-size microwave-safe bowl, combine the chocolate and coconut oil. Microwave on full power for 1½ minutes until mostly melted, stopping and stirring at 30-second intervals. Be careful not to overheat the chocolate, which makes it thick, chunky, and dry. Once the chocolate is mostly melted, continue stirring and the last few pieces will melt completely. Remove the first pan of bourbon balls from the freezer and, working one at a time, poke a toothpick into each ball and dip it into the melted chocolate. Use a spoon, as needed, to coat the ball evenly on all sides.

  5. Let any excess chocolate drip into the bowl, then return the coated ball to the pan, remove the toothpick, and sprinkle some pecans on top. Repeat the process with the remaining balls. Let the chocolate harden before serving. To speed the process, place the pans of coated bourbon balls in the refrigerator.

  6. Coat the bourbon balls using coating variation 2: Spread the powdered sugar across a small shallow dish and roll each ball in the sugar until evenly coated.

  7. Coat the bourbon balls using coating variation 3: In a small shallow dish, stir together the powdered sugar and cocoa powder. Roll each ball in the mixture until evenly coated.

  8. At-home tip: Bourbon balls can be made ahead and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks. You can also make the bourbon balls up to 2 months ahead and freeze them, then coat the frozen balls a few hours before serving.

Reprinted with permission from The National Parks Cookbook : The Best Recipes from (and Inspired by) America’s National Parks, by Lydia Ly, published by Harvard Common Press, an imprint of Quarto Publishing Group. Text © 2022 Lydia Ly.