Virginia Sweet Potato and Bourbon Soup

First, to clear up one grave misconception: genuine yams are not sweet potatoes, despite their resemblance to them in shape and flavor. The two are different plant species altogether—the yam a tuber found mainly in South America and Africa, the sweet potato native to the New World, especially the American South. Most likely, the confusion derives from African slaves having called the sweet potato either njam or djambi. Long before that, sweet potatoes were being cultivated in Virginia and often called the “Indian potato.” Eventually, of course, the sweet potato became a major crop in the South and a major component of soul cooking, utilized in everything from puddings and pies to croquettes and casseroles to lusty soups, such as this one spiked with bourbon. (Sweet potatoes and bourbon do seem to have a natural affinity.)


  • 2 strips bacon, cut into small pieces
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • cups chicken broth
  • 3 medium sweet potatoes (about 2 pounds), peeled and cubed
  • 2 tablespoons molasses
  • ½ teaspoon dried thyme
  • teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • Cayenne pepper to taste
  • 2 tablespoons bourbon
  • ½ cup heavy cream
  • Chopped fresh chives for garnish


In a large, heavy saucepan, fry the bacon over moderate heat till crisp, drain on paper towels, and set aside. Add the onion to the fat in the pan and cook, stirring, about 2 minutes. Add the broth, sweet potatoes, molasses, thyme, nutmeg, salt and pepper, and cayenne pepper, bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and simmer till the potatoes are very tender, about 30 minutes. Let cool slightly.

Transfer the mixture to a blender or food processor and reduce to a smooth purée. Scrape back into the pan, add the bourbon and cream, and cook over low heat till thoroughly heated. Serve in soup bowls and sprinkle a few chives over each serving.