On a recent autumn afternoon, Ken and Melissa Robinson were up to their elbows in chocolate. Fashioning delicate treats from flavorful cacao and infusing them with the subtle hint of bourbon, the bonbon business keeps their Lexington, Kentucky, factory space bustling.
“This is the beginning of the busy season for us,” says Ken, an Ohio native who was recruited in 1990 to be the economic development director of Vision 2000, a regional economic agency. “Everything we’re making now is already sold.”
While living for 15 years in Evansville, the Robinsons owned a North Main Street bakery called Pastries by Melissa, but their candy business was born in Boonville, Indiana. Melissa participates in a cookie exchange at the home of friend Rosanna Clayton and once brought bourbon-flavored bonbons, which earned rave reviews. That day, a new concept of an old Kentucky favorite was born, and the rest is history.
The couple retired to Lexington in 2016 and began making bonbons to sell on Etsy, and the business of Bourbon Bonbons quickly took off like a prized stallion. Their signature Bourbon Bonbon has a pecan on top and, when combined with other ingredients, provides the perfect mouth feel, Ken says.
“When you bite into it, you get the snap and then the soft fondant taste, and then bourbon finally hits you on the back of the throat, making for a pleasing flavor profile,” he says.
The Robinsons make everything themselves and only hire help for packaging and delivery. Their custom-blended chocolates must abide by Kentucky bourbon candy laws that dictate a bourbon net weight of no more than five percent per product. Therefore, shoppers of any age can buy and consume bonbons. Another plus, the Robinsons avoid using preservatives.
Surrounded by distilleries, the Robinsons were in the perfect place to branch out into commercial partnerships for their artisan chocolates. In addition to supplying high-end caterers, Bourbon Bonbons’ products now can be found in and around Lexington at distilleries such as Barrel House; Keeneland’s catering group and retail outlets; in welcome gifts at the Hyatt Regency and Marriott Griffin Gate; and the RJ Corman, dinner train in Bardstown. Their bonbons also are for sale at Whole Food’s Lexington location, while the stores in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Louisville, Kentucky, have ordered bonbons for the Kentucky Derby.
“We do a lot of experimentation. We blend two Kentucky bourbons — one is more of a rye base, and the other is a corn base — and together they have an incredible taste. We always use 100-proof bourbon, which makes the perfect taste profile. When the proof is too low, the flavor gets too fruity,” Ken says. “Nothing is left to chance in this business.”
Not a fan of spirits? Pumpkin spice and peppermint bonbons are particularly popular and help the Robinsons sell between 15,000 and 20,000 bonbons each year.
The Robinsons stay connected to the River City by providing bonbons and other bourbon-infused desserts for the Evansville Bourbon Society’s past three annual meetings. Their daughter, Liz Robinson, also still lives in Evansville and serves as Bourbon Bonbons’ marketing director.
“It’s a very dynamic business,” Ken says. “We couldn’t have found a better way to blend our love of bourbon and chocolate.”