KY Jelly Is My New Jam

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KY Jelly. Photo: Michael ProcopioIf it’s sweet and smearable, you will find it spooned upon my morning toast. Jams, jellies, marmalades, conserves, confitures– I love them all.

I’ve had fig paste from Morocco, cloudberry jam from Newfoundland, and pearl jam from Seattle. If there is a place on earth whose fruit spread I have not sampled, it is only a matter of time before I do. So you can imagine my delight when I wandered into Walgreen’s and made rather unexpected discovery.

I was looking for shaving cream, but found myself lost in the feminine hygiene aisle when I saw it. Wedged between boxes of home pregnancy tests and Summer’s Eve, I came across a spread I never knew existed: Kentucky jelly. I was amused by its placement in the store, assuming perhaps that it was being marketed to pregnant women. Or at least very clean ones. If it was delicious enough to be recommended by gynecologists, it was good enough for me. I snatched up a box and headed to the checkout line, forgetting all about the shaving cream.

When I returned home, I pulled the jelly out of its box after I put my bread slices in the oven to do their thing. The pale blue container I held in my hand gave little away as to what flavors lay hidden inside. I did, however, admire the packaging: a squeezeable tube. So convenient for spreading upon one’s toast, I thought.

Unscrewing the plastic cap to remove the tamper-proof seal, I replaced it and squirted a generous amount of the jelly onto my hot toast. I was surprised by the clearness of it but, undeterred, I bit in.


It was not what I imagined Kentucky to taste like. I was disappointed by its glycerin flavor and viscous mouthfeel. And it was not organic. My friends from there are colorful and interesting, so why wasn’t the official jelly of The Bluegrass State the same? I tried to imagine Kat and Jackie spreading it on their muffins in the morning. And then I immediately tried to imagine something else.

KY jelly does a great disservice to The Great Commonwealth, no matter what gynecologists may think of it. When I think of Kentucky, I think of bourbon, racehorses, summer heat, bourbon, cherries, and bourbon. I think of good old-fashioned traditions upheld like Derby Day and the making of burgoo and hot brown. And though I may think of Loretta Lynn using Crisco in her pie, I never, ever think of her using KY Jelly.

Old-Fashioned Kentucky Jelly. Photo: Michael Procopio

Old Fashioned Kentucky Jelly

I decided to make my own Kentucky jelly, the old-fashioned way, just to take the bad taste out of my mouth. And when I say “old-fashioned,” I mean like the cocktail of the same name. Though my friends from The Hemp State might disagree, this recipe is how I imagine their signature spread should be:

Sticky, sweet, a whiff of bourbon, and the gentle kick of a thoroughbred thrown in for good measure.

Makes two 8 ounce jars of KY jelly. Keep one for yourself and give the other to someone you’d like to see use it.

  • 1/2 cups Kentucky bourbon
  • 1 1/2 cups black cherry juice (Knudsen makes a great one using cherries and nothing else, which is ideal.)
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup of sugar
  • 3 or 4 good dashes of orange bitters
  • The peel of 1/2 of an orange (large pieces are best, because you’ll want easy removal.)
  • 1/2 teaspoon Aleppo pepper (or chile flakes, if you want a little extra heat.)
  • 1 teaspoon calcium water (powder comes with your packet of Pomona Universal Pectin)
  • 3/4 teaspoon of powdered Pomona’s Universal Pectin mixed with:
    1 teaspoon of granulated sugar

    Pouring Kentucky Jelly. Photo: Michael Procopio

  1. In a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed pot, add bourbon, cherry juice, orange peel, bitters, sugar, lemon juice, and pepper flakes. Bring to a boil, then turn off the heat and let stand for 30 minutes to allow the flavors to mingle properly.
  2. Remove orange peel. Add calcium water and stir into your liquid. Add the sugar/pectin mixture, bring to a boil, and stir, stir, stir to prevent the pectin from clumping. To see if the concoction has gelled to you liking, place a small spoonful onto a chilled plate and see how it sets up when cool. Too firm? Add a little more juice and try again. Too runny? Add a little more pectin and see what happens.
  3. Pour hot jelly in to clean, sterilized jars and process according to instructions from the National Center for Home Food Preservation.
  4. To serve: spread it on toast, on crackers, on cheese, on any food stuff that seems in need of lubrication.