A nip of locally distilled Tom’s Town bourbon mingles with bittersweet chocolate and a bourbon pecan mash with each bite into “guilty pleasure” — one of dozens of “notoriously naughty” bourbon and rum balls made by Lisa Fitch.
“A lot of people associate them with the holidays, like they do with divinity fudge,” explained Fitch, founder of Bootleg Bourbon Balls, detailing reasons she loves the sweet treats and how they paved the way for her second act as an entrepreneur.
“I come from a background [in medicine] as a nurse practitioner. I retired several years ago and decided healthcare wasn’t something I wanted to be back in — but I had a passion for making bourbon balls,” she said, referencing a family recipe that never failed to satisfy the sweet tooths of friends and loved ones — no matter the time of year.
“I went to visit a friend in Kentucky and she said, ‘Lisa, you should think about making these. You’ve got great distilleries in Kansas City and wonderful whiskeys and bourbons,’” Fitch recalled, noting she agreed and quickly got to work, partnering with local distillers to develop recipes that would elevate (and localize) the traditional bourbon and rum balls she’d grown so fond of.
The result: a lineup of handcrafted, Kansas City-dipped treats, made with the finest local spirits from distilleries that include Tom’s Town, Lifted Spirits, Copper Run, Restless Spirits, Union Horse, and McCormick.
Recipes range from Dame’s Dish, which features semisweet, Belgian chocolate blended with Stone Breaker Irish and American Blended Whiskey from Restless Spirits and rolled in toasted pecans and center cut bacon pieces; to Rum Runner, which sees Copper Run Small Batch Gold Rum blended into a creamy, dark chocolate and rum-soaked pecan mash, and rolled in coconut.
Click here for a full lineup of Bootleg Bourbon Balls or to place an online order.
“A gentleman asked me the other day, ‘Why are you notorious?’ Lisa Fitch said, referencing the company’s tagline: “notoriously naughty.”
“Prohibition is a time in history that’s pretty notorious,” she continued, noting Kansas City’s history with the era. “They’re naughty because they have alcohol in them.”
“I always say, ‘If only the bootleggers thought to conceal the liquors so deliciously,’” she laughed, hitting on the inspiration for the Bootleg Bourbon Balls name.
“We’re resurrecting the bourbon ball out of the holiday tins and bringing it to Kansas City and introducing it as something new and unique and fun.”
“It took a couple years of me dropping off samples and communicating with the owners and the distillers,” she said, noting her persistence paid off.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic and its bitter hold on small businesses.
“We were getting ready to talk seriously to three distilleries and COVID hit. We kind of put [expansion] on hold because tours stopped and there really wasn’t much going on in regards to the distilleries.”
Having made it through the pandemic with the business still thriving, thanks in large part to its operation as an online retailer, the 2021 holiday season provided a chance for Bootleg to reemerge, Fitch said.
“We’re able to reintroduce the idea of getting our product out there,” she said.
“[The distilleries] are able to offer bourbon balls that are individually wrapped after their tours and help direct their customers back to our website for purchasing,” Fitch continued, sharing examples of collaboration in the distilling space and ways she’s been welcomed into it as a business owner — and especially as someone new to the world of entrepreneurship.
“I’m learning something that I had never been trained before. I’m a UMKC graduate with a nursing degree — I [wasn’t] an artisanal chocolate maker,” she laughed, looking back fondly on her five years in business.
“I’ve been self-taught and learned through family traditions. Learning the retail markets and the business of chocolate and finding a niche in Kansas City — that’s very unique and different — is fun and challenging,” Fitch acknowledged.
“I spent a lot of time in the very beginning learning about rules and regulations and developing an online retail business — which, recently, having to grapple with [the effects of] COVID I’m blessed with. It kept our business going.”
And there’s no looking back now, Fitch said, excited by what the new year might hold for Bootleg and eager to share her creations with even more customers.
“We have a passion for what we do. We have a good product, we use high quality chocolate, we support local businesses and it’s a true Kansas City bourbon ball,” she said of why customers should pick up a box and experience the treats for themselves.
“They’re appealing to the eye and even more appealing to the taste buds.”
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.