Bourbon balls and beyond: Boozy treats for the holiday season

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Nothing says Christmas like whiskey.  Of course, whiskey also goes really well with Arbor Day.  And, you know, like, Thursday.  But still, there is something about a Yule log in the fireplace and snow piled up outside that begs for that warm-from-the-inside feeling.

Of course, you all know me well enough by now to know that I would generally just prefer to drink the whiskey.  But somehow it’s more socially acceptable if you serve it up with some sugar and butter mixed in.  So let’s make some boozy treats!

Bourbon balls

As someone who loves whiskey so much, you would think I would have a tried and true recipe for that holiday classic, the bourbon ball.  But I don’t.  In fact, until this week, I had never actually tasted one.  I mean, it’s called a bourbon ball.  It’s bourbon and chocolate.  This should be something with which I am well acquainted.  But nope.  Never had one.

I began researching recipes, and was shocked to find that bourbon balls contain, pretty much without exception, crushed store-bought vanilla wafers and corn syrup.  As a from-scratch baker and general food snob, there was no way I was making a cookie with some store-bought cookie smushed up in it and held together with corn syrup.  Ew.  Never having had a bourbon ball, it really just seemed like a waste of good bourbon to me.

But people love them, so I dug deeper.  I even tried Epicurious, one of my favorite recipe sites that pulls recipes from Gourmet and Bon Appétit magazines.  Nope.  Crushed vanilla wafers and corn syrup as far as the eye could see.

OK, let’s do this then.

Chocolate bourbon balls

I went with this recipe from the White on Rice Couple blog because they recommended freshly grated nutmeg and real grated ginger instead of sad, old, powdered nutmeg and ginger from the spice rack.  Those are my kind of people.  If you’re gonna put smushed up store-bought cookies in your confection, at least have the pretentiousness to grate fresh ginger in there.

That seems like sarcasm, but it’s not.  That’s really how I feel about it and really why I picked their recipe.  Also, their bourbon balls are chocolate, not plain, and that just seems like the right answer.


Chocolate Bourbon Balls

Adapted from White on Rice Couple

Notes: Tempting though it may be, do not throw the vanilla wafers in the food processor with the pecans and chop them together.  You want the wafers to be pretty much powder.  The nuts should be finely chopped but not made into a paste.  Also, reserve any extra wafer crumbs and pecans to roll the finished balls in.

  • 1 cup crushed vanilla wafers (~40 regular size)
  • 1 cup finely chopped pecans
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp freshly grated ginger (or sad powdered ginger from the spice rack)
  • 1/8 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/4 cup cocoa powder
  • 1/4 cup bourbon
  • 2 Tbsp light corn syrup

In a bowl, combine ground wafers, pecans, powdered sugar, spices, and cocoa powder. Add bourbon and corn syrup and stir. Roll into one-inch balls and then coat in reserved vanilla wafer crumbs, pecans, cocoa powder, or powdered sugar.

Serve chilled or at room temperature. Makes about 2 dozen.

The verdict… they’re pretty good I guess.  I don’t know what bourbon balls are supposed to taste like, so I don’t know.  They certainly couldn’t be any easier to throw together.  I can taste the corn syrup and I don’t like that.  I can taste the bourbon and the bite of fresh ginger and I do like that.  Topping-wise, my husband preferred the powdered sugar.  I preferred the chopped pecans.

A friend who has actually had bourbon balls before said she liked mine better because they were less boozy.

Break my heart, why dontcha!  So I would make them boozier in the future.  I would make them so boozy that they magically transform into a shot of bourbon.

But actually, I probably won’t make these again.  They do have a distinct flavor of bourbon, which is nice, but the corn syrup cloy is off-putting, and demands that I immediately cleanse my palate with something salty.  And once I’m alternating sweet-salty-sweet-salty, I basically just have to go online and buy new jeans.  They do get better after sitting a day or two, but I don’t think they’ll become a tradition in my house.


Kind of like pumpkin munchkins, but with bourbon!
Kind of like pumpkin munchkins, but with bourbon!

Pumpkin bourbon balls

One of the few bourbon ball recipes I found that didn’t include corn syrup used pumpkin puree as a binder instead.

I’m a sucker for pumpkin.  Pumpkin lattes.  Pumpkin soup. Pumpkin munchkins.

Bring on the pumpkin!



Pumpkin Bourbon Balls

Note: As above, I recommend using the food processor separately on the cookies and pecans, and reserving any extra for rolling the finished balls.

Adapted from Dessert for Two

  • ½ cup crushed vanilla wafers (~20 regular size)
  • ½ cup finely chopped pecans
  • ½ cup powdered sugar
  • ½ tsp cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp ground ginger or freshly grated ginger
  • pinch of nutmeg
  • 2 Tbsp bourbon
  • 1 Tbsp pumpkin puree (canned is fine)

In a bowl, combine the wafer, pecans, powdered sugar and spices.  Add the bourbon and pumpkin and stir. Roll into one-inch balls and then coat in reserved vanilla wafer crumbs or pecans.

Serve chilled or at room temperature.  Makes about one dozen.

Now we’re talking.  These things are go-ood.  Reminiscent of the aforementioned pumpkin munchkin doughnut, but with bourbon.  Again, I preferred the pecan coating.  In both cases, it gave more texture, which my mouth wanted.

I will make these again when they all disappear into my pie hole before any guests even arrive at my house.  If you like pumpkin treats, these are delicious and very easy.  They aren’t all that boozy, so you could pop up the bourbon by a tablespoon if you wanted.  Christina at Desserts for Two seemed to think they were plenty boozy as is, so take my questionable advice with a grain of salt.

And speaking of salt…

Bourbon salted caramels
Bourbon salted caramels

Bourbon salted caramels

Come on.  I don’t even have to say anything else, do I?  You all want these, don’t you.  Yeah, I know you do.

I used Bon Appétit’s Bourbon Sea Salt Caramels as a base recipe, and just doubled the bourbon, because I’m that kind of girl.



Bourbon Salted Caramels

Adapted from Bon Appétit

Note: Unless you’ve made caramels before and know exactly what you’re looking for, you really do need a candy thermometer to do this.  Sorry.

  • Nonstick vegetable oil spray
  • 2 cups sugar
  • ½ cup light corn syrup
  • 1 14 oz. can sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, cut into pieces
  • ¼ cup bourbon
  • ½ tsp kosher salt
  • Fancy sea salt (I topped half with Malden flaky sea salt and half with Malden smoked sea salt)


Lightly coat an 8X8” baking pan with cooking spray, then cut a piece of parchment to fit inside and come up the sides a bit.  Lightly spray the parchment as well.

caramel_cookingIn a small heavy-bottomed sauce pan over medium heat, combine corn syrup and water.  Add the sugar, pouring it into the center of the pan (try to keep it off the sides).  Gently stir to combine, moistening the sugar but trying to keep the sugar off the sides of the pan. Heat without stirring much (if at all) until it boils and attach a candy thermometer.

When the thermometer reads 320 degrees, boiling caramel should be a lovely medium amber color. (This happens after about 8-10 minutes, but don’t leave.  Watch it closely). Remove from heat and whisk in condensed milk and butter.  It will bubble violently.  Please be careful.

Put the caramel back on medium-low heat and stir occasionally until it reaches 240 degrees.  This happened very quickly with my batch, maybe two minutes, but could take longer.  Remove from heat and stir in bourbon and kosher salt.

Pour into prepared pan and let cool.  After about 20 minutes, sprinkle top with sea salt.  Let cool completely, several hours, and then put in the refrigerator for a half hour before cutting.

Cut into small pieces, and wrap individually in wax paper.

Makes 4-6 dozen pieces.  More than you could ever need, really.

OK, can I be honest?  Making caramel is a pain.  It’s messy and finicky.  But man, these things are good.  Those store bought caramels?  Not the same animal.  These are soft, melt in your mouth, and don’t stick in your teeth.  They’re buttery.  And the sea salt kicks it up a notch.

If what you love about bourbon is that caramel flavor on the tip of your tongue, then these will make you very happy.

I tried two kinds of salt, Malden sea salt flakes and Malden smoked salt.  I honestly thought I would prefer the smoked salt.  I mean, I’m a whiskey drinker.  I like sweet and smoke, and the more complexity, the better.  But I actually preferred the simplicity of the plain salt flakes.

The bourbon flavor is not particularly strong, but it is there, a lovely subtle accent.


Bourbon truffles

Creamy, chocolatey bourbon truffles
Creamy, chocolatey bourbon truffles

What could possibly top bourbon salted caramels?  Maybe nothing.  But if anything, it’s gonna involve bourbon ganache.

Ganache.  Chopped chocolate and hot cream/butter, stirred together until creamy.  Yeah.  So, let’s make that.

This one isn’t an adaptation.  It’s my own.  I’ve made truffles before, and just looked around the interwebs to estimate how much booze one can add to ganache before it will no longer stay in solid form.

Bourbon truffles
By Whiskey Pam

  • ¼ cup whipping cream
  • 4 Tbsp unsalted butter
  • 12 oz. high quality bittersweet chocolate (approximately 60% cocoa)
  • ¼ cup bourbon
  • unsweetened cocoa powder for rolling


Chop chocolate into small pieces, smaller than chocolate chips, and put in large bowl.  In a heavy saucepan over low-to-medium heat, heat cream and butter, stirring to combine, until cream begins to simmer.  Pour simmering cream mixture over chopped chocolate and stir until smooth and creamy.  Stir in bourbon.  Cover bowl, and put in the freezer until ganache is firm but still workable, 30-45 minutes.  Lick the stirring spoon.  Be happy.

Once ganache is firm, scoop a tablespoon or so at a time and roll into balls.  Roll finished balls in cocoa powder.  Refrigerate until firm.

Serve at room temperature. Makes about 2 dozen.
A few notes:  If (after lots of stirring) you can’t get your ganache smooth because your chocolate chunks were too large, try popping the whole bowl in the microwave for 30 seconds.

Also, that “roll into balls” step up there can harder than it sounds.  Some people recommend scooping the ganache into little mounds on a parchment-covered baking sheet after about 20 minutes in the freezer, freezing another 20-30 minutes, and then rolling it into balls.  You get prettier truffles that way, but it takes longer, and you have to have a baking-sheet-sized empty space in your freezer.  Who has that?  Right, no one.  So I’m a fan of the one-bowl method.  If I’m having trouble getting the truffles round, I sometimes put the scoop of hardened ganache in a paper towel and smush it into a rough ball shape before rolling so it doesn’t get too melty from the heat of my hands.

Couldn't resist a taste...
Couldn’t resist a taste…

So, bourbon truffles?  Um, awesome, obviously.  I mean, how could they not be awesome?  Look what went into them.  They’re not particularly bourbony, but it is there, especially in the nose.  But the bourbon is a fairly subtle accent flavor, with chocolate and creaminess taking center stage.

The finished truffle is already pretty soft at room temperature, so I don’t think we can add much more bourbon.  If you want a boozier truffle, I think you’re going to have to move up the difficulty level to chocolate-dipping them.

But that seems way too ambitious.  I’ve done it.  It’s hard, and messy.  My advice is to stick with the easy cocoa-rolled truffle, and if you want them boozier, just serve with a sidecar of bourbon!  Everybody wins!

Bourbon maple chipotle glazed mixed nuts

And we’ll add one non-sweet treat to the mix.  This fabulous recipe came into my life via my good friend John (@thehoplocal), who writes a weekly beer blog and knows his food.  Warning, these things are addictive.  When I make them, I regularly need the bag taken away from me lest I destroy myself on some kind of bourbon maple binge.

Highly addictive bourbon maple nuts with a kick

The recipe, originally from a blog called Someone left the cake out in the rain, makes a staggeringly large batch of nuts.  This is a good thing if you’re making gifts.  But if you’re, say, at home watching TV with the bag of them in your lap, you might be better off making the half-batch I list here.  (In which I halve everything except the bourbon.  Teehee.)

The original calls for a maple liqueur that I don’t think is necessary.  I tend to avoid recipes that call for specialty items that I’ll only use for that one recipe.  It also, however, calls for chipotle chili powder, which most people will not already have in their spice racks.

Don’t leave out the chipotle powder!

See how I put that on its own line?  It’s important.  Don’t sub regular chili powder.  Don’t use ancho chili powder.  Get the chipotle stuff.  It’s magical.  And then once you have it, use it in everything.

Remember the first time you smelled smoked paprika, and you were like, oh smoked paprika, where have you been all my life?  It’s like that.

Also, use fresh rosemary, not dried.  The rosemary is a major flavor and aroma component.


Bourbon maple chipotle glazed mixed nuts

Adapted from Someone left the cake out in the rain

  • 3 ¼ cups whole unsalted nuts*
  • 3 Tbsp maple syrup¼ cup bourbon2 Tbsp light brown sugar
  • 1 ½ Tbsp orange juice
  • 1 tsp ground chipotle powder
  • 2 Tbsp minced fresh rosemary, divided
  • kosher salt
  • vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 325.

Brush or spray baking sheet with vegetable oil.  (For easier clean-up, line tray with non-stick aluminum foil and then spray oil).  Combine nuts, 2 Tbsp vegetable oil, bourbon, maple syrup, brown sugar, orange juice, chipotle powder, 1 Tbsp rosemary, and 1 tsp salt in a bowl.  Toss to coat evenly.  Spread on prepared baking sheet in a single layer.

Roast for 20-30 minutes, stirring once or twice during cooking, until nuts are glazed and golden.

Remove from oven and sprinkle with 1 additional Tbsp rosemary and 1 additional tsp salt.

Let cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally to keep them from sticking together.  Once completely cool, store in airtight container.

*I used 1 ½ cups cashews, 1 cup walnuts, ½ cup almonds, ¼ cup pecans.  Adjust quantities to your taste.

These nuts will make your complexity-loving taste buds very, very happy.  They do have a bit of a spicy kick from the chipotle powder.  They don’t set your mouth on fire, but there is some heat.  If you don’t like spicy things, reduce the chipotle slightly.

So which of these recipes should you make first?  Here’s a little quiz to help you decide:

Do you want your confection to taste like bourbon without actually being bourbon, or do you want do get everyone at your office ever-so-slightly drunk so that they all tell you their secrets?

Make bourbon balls.  They’re OK, not great.  But they’re easy to make and you can cram a lot of bourbon in them and they’ll still work.  And even my “not that boozy” version up there has the strongest bourbon flavor of any of the recipes.

Do you like pumpkin lattes?  Do you want to seem impressive and awesome while doing the least amount of work possible?

Go for the pumpkin bourbon balls.  They were really delicious.  Also, they come together in minutes, but taste pretty refined and highbrow for a cookie made out of crushed up other cookies.

Do you like chocolate?  Like, a lot?

Make bourbon truffles.  They aren’t that hard to make, don’t require special equipment, and are truly decadent.  People won’t believe you made them.

And for dessert?  Bourbon!
And for dessert? Bourbon!

Do you want to actually drink bourbon while you’re eating whatever you make? And are you pretty comfortable in the kitchen?

Make bourbon salted caramels.  They’re honestly a pain in the butt, but oh man… they are delicious with a glass of bourbon.  My husband and I did a taste test of all of the treats while drinking bourbon, and the salted caramels won hands down.  The pumpkin bourbon balls were the only other thing that even came close, and they weren’t really that close.

Do you want something less sugary?  Maybe with a little spicy kick?

Whip up a batch of the bourbon maple chipotle nuts.  And make sure you have someone nearby to take them away from you when you can’t stop eating them.

Are you trying to cut calories?

Well, then just drink bourbon.  Cheers!