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Chocolate Helps the Bourbon Go Down

I was saved by a bourbon ball.

After moving to central Kentucky 20 years ago, I realized you can't travel far without running into bourbon. The Bluegrass state distills 90 to 95 percent of the nation's bourbon — and more than 60 varieties of it. The spirit runs through the region's history and landscape like a theme through a quilt.

In fact, decline bourbon at a party here and folks give you a queer look. But I can't stand the stuff. There is, however, a loophole: bourbon balls.

I was given a gift box of chocolate-bourbon balls and knew I was saved. I lifted the lid of the box, and the intense, earthy smell of bourbon wafted up. But there was also the irresistible scent of chocolate beckoning me to take a bite.

One taste of the bourbon-flavored fondant surrounded by the dark chocolate — usually topped by a pecan or walnut — and the rich, startling taste two-stepped across my taste buds.

"Oh, my," I thought. "How delectable."

Later, I discovered other versions of the combo: Kentucky classics such as chocolate-nut bourbon pie and bread pudding with chocolate and bourbon. Chocolate deepens, yet mellows, the taste of bourbon, and sugar, well, sweetens it. For folks like me, bourbon becomes not only palatable in these sweets, but delicious.

Bourbon whiskey is made from a fermented mash containing at least 51 percent (though more often closer to 70 percent) corn and smaller amounts of the grains rye or wheat plus barley and yeast.

It's typically aged from four to eight years in new, white oak barrels charred on the inside, a process that helps develop the spirit's intense, smoky taste and reddish-amber color. As the bourbon ages in the barrels, up to 30 percent evaporates, whimsically called "the angels' share."

Bourbon is about as American as apple pie: Its roots go back to Revolutionary War days, when early settlers took advantage of the region's rich, loamy bottomlands to grow abundant corn.

Before long, corn whiskey made with the area's clear water — filtered through a limestone-rich topography — became popular. Follow Kentucky's "bourbon trail," and history whispers in your ear.

Two distilleries are National Historic Landmarks. Another sits on an ancient buffalo trail — or "trace" — as it meets the Kentucky River. Not too far away is Abraham Lincoln's boyhood home near Knob Creek, the area where his father Thomas Lincoln is said to have worked as a seasonal distillery hand. In 1964, an act of Congress declared bourbon whiskey "America's native spirit."

Then, a breakthrough for folks like me: In 1919, two teachers named Ruth Hanly and Rebecca Gooch began a candy-making business in Frankfort, Ky. Soon, Rebecca Ruth chocolates were a hit.

In 1936 came the suggestion that somebody ought to pair two of Kentucky's finest products — Rebecca Ruth chocolates and bourbon. Hanly did, and after two years of experimenting, the bourbon ball was born. Hanly's grandson still runs the company.

Several of Kentucky's bourbons have found their way into the many brands of bourbon balls now on the market. Lest the tradition become too grand, the newcomer Happy Balls! of Louisville offers: "Our balls are bigger!"

Set among the forests and farms of the region is more bourbon-chocolate magic. At the Abbey of Gethsemani — made famous by Thomas Merton — Trappist monks produce chocolate-bourbon fudge as one of the mail-order food products that support the monastery. Every so often, the monks drive down the road to the Jim Beam distillery and bring back several barrels of bourbon. From an undisclosed recipe, they produce and sell 50,000 pounds of fudge each year, most of it at Christmas. They also make a butter walnut bourbon variety. Talk about smooth.

So now, when a host offers me a bourbon at a party, I decline politely. "No thanks," I say. "But how about for dessert?"

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D. Cameron Lawrence