Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Kentucky products bring a taste of home to those far away

Charles Booe, owner of Rebecca Ruth Candies in downtown Frankfort, said the holidays boost business and bring tourists. "I don't count them, but they come in every day," he said.
Charles Booe, owner of Rebecca Ruth Candies in downtown Frankfort, said the holidays boost business and bring tourists. "I don't count them, but they come in every day," he said. Jack Brammer | Staff

If you can't be home for the holidays, you can at least bring a taste of home to you. The folks at Ale 8 One and other companies that produce some of Kentucky's signature food and drink see it every year.

The Ale 8 One bottling plant in Winchester, which distributes only in parts of Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio, does a healthy mail-order business all year in soft drinks and souvenirs. T-shirt sales have been especially strong, thanks to Orlando Bloom wearing one in the 2005 movie Elizabethtown and rock climbers from all over the world who come to the Red River Gorge and leave with a taste for the sweet, gingery drink in the distinctive green bottle.

But when the holidays roll around, Ale 8 One sales spike, and most of it comes from homesick Kentuckians living far away. Direct sales rise by about one-third each November, and triple in December, compared to other months.

"It's a familiarity, a nostalgia, a memory for people," said DeAnne Elmore, the company's marketing director. "It's a connection to home, and the holidays trigger all of that. We have people who tell us they toast with it on New Year's Eve."

It can cost as much as $30 to have a 12-pack of Ale 8 One shipped to the West Coast. "The shipping costs a lot more than the product, but we don't have any control over that," Elmore said.

At Harper's Country Hams in the Western Kentucky town of Clinton, the last 60 days of the year account for nearly 40 percent of annual sales.

Harper's ham is easier to find outside Kentucky than Ale 8 One, owing to a distribution network that includes most of the Southeast. But Kentuckians elsewhere who yearn for that salty goodness can go to and order gift packages and even whole country hams, which range in price from $43 to $83.

"Sales are getting bigger every year because of the Internet," Harper's spokesman Mike Morgan said.

Morgan said orders come in from all over the world, but shipments to some countries can be tricky because of cultural and religious biases against eating pork. When a Harper's employee was serving in the military in Iraq a few years ago, his colleagues here cooked up a batch of country ham jerky to send him, and it managed to get past the pork police, Morgan said.

Rebecca Ruth, which has been churning out bourbon chocolates since 1919, does a large percentage of its business through Internet and catalog sales. Sales rise dramatically around the holidays.

Many orders come from families that have been customers for generations, said owner Charles Booe, whose grandmother, Ruth Hanly Booe, started the company with partner Rebecca Gooch.

"The fourth quarter is the best time for buying chocolates for a variety of reasons," Booe said. In addition to holiday feasts and gift-giving, the weather is cooler and safer for shipping.

The holidays also bring more tourists to Rebecca Ruth's kitchen, located in an old house near the state Capitol in Frankfort. How many tourists?

"A lot," Booe said. "I don't count them, but they come in every day."

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail promotion has created a dramatic increase in visitors for distillery tours. Maker's Mark Distillery will have special free candlelight tours of its decorated grounds near Loretto in Marion County on Dec. 4 and Dec. 11 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Liquor laws prevent distilleries from selling mail-order bourbon, but all of them do a brisk business in souvenirs. Besides, most popular brands of bourbon are now available in liquor stores just about everywhere.

Each year, Kentucky distillers roll out special bottles and gift packs that include glasses or flasks. The flasks offered with Four Roses Single Barrel this year celebrate the 100th anniversary of its distillery building near Lawrenceburg.

Some distilleries also produce special whiskeys. Buffalo Trace's 2010 Antique Collection includes five limited-release whiskeys of various recipes and ages. Woodford Reserve's annual Master's Collection this year features a limited bottling of what it says is the first bourbon finished in a maple, rather than oak, barrel.

Alltech expects big holiday sales of its Lexington-made Kentucky Ale, which has been around for a decade. Some of that is because its Bourbon Barrel Ale gained an international following during the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

As with bourbon, bourbon chocolate, Ale 8 One and country ham, Kentucky Ale isn't just for homesick Kentuckians anymore.