Olive and Sinclair’s Scott Witherow Talks Southern Chocolate

In 2009, Scott Witherow did something no one in Nashville had ever done before: He opened a small-batch bean-to-bar factory that upended people's ideas of what Southern chocolate was, or could be. Called Olive and Sinclair, the company put a regional imprint on the beans Witherow sourced from Ghana and the Dominican Republic, thanks to traditional Southern ingredients. Even Witherow's technique takes a page from the past: He grinds cacao beans with the same kind of stone mill that has long been used for grits. Witherow recently took some time to talk to us about his life in chocolate on the eve of that annual surge in consumption, Valentine's Day.

You describe your chocolate as "Southern artisan." What does that mean?

Honestly, it's kind of an evolving thing. It started out because we tested what sweetener we wanted to use and our gut reaction was brown sugar—it works really well with the beans we use. The sorghum and molasses notes balance the bitter notes and the other subtleties. Not being aware of any other Southern makers with any kind of distribution, we kind of started the concept. Now, we're launching our buttermilk white chocolate, and [regional] ingredients play a major role in it.

We're also doing collaborations with a lot of other Southern makers. One we're doing now is a smoked nib brittle with [country ham maker] Allan Benton—he's like the cornerstone of [Southern artisan] makers. We're also doing a double-chocolate bourbon. We did one with Prichard's Distillery out of Kelso, Tennessee. It's stinking awesome. I'm no distiller, but to me, [chocolate] enhances the flavor of the actual bourbon.

What were some of the challenges about opening a chocolate factory in Nashville?

Oh my gosh. One of the biggest hurdles was really teaching [myself] how to make chocolate. There are all these little things like particle size and grind time and heating, and how those impact the flavors of the chocolate. That was major. And sourcing machinery: Who do you call to piece together a chocolate factory? Especially at that point, when you're looking for machines that don't really exist. One of the most frustrating things for me personally was just trying to stay awake. I was a pastry chef at a restaurant here in town and also teaching pastry while trying to put together the business. On a number of occasions, I fell asleep while driving. Luckily, the one guy I did rear-end was nice and let me go.

How does someone go about teaching themselves to make chocolate?

A lot of folks, they really like craft beer and end up reading and teaching themselves how to home-brew. I think of it the same way. I've been in the kitchen since I was 15, and a lot of the time I tended to be in pastry, working with chocolate from all over. Eventually, I started reading more scientific chocolate books—part of it made sense and part went in one ear and out the other. But it has to be like that until you actually do it. So I bought books and ended up buying smaller tabletop-size machines and made stuff I'd give to friends. Eventually, it was kind of sink or swim.

As a small-batch producer, how do you maintain integrity while growing the business?

Some of that we're still trying to figure out. So far, it hasn't been a problem; it hasn't increased our vat size or how many batches we make. We run a pretty tight ship over here—I've got five [employees], and myself.

What sort of chocolate did you eat growing up?

[Laughs] I was a sweets freak and still am a candy freak. I always loved M&M's. And if my mom had a peppermint basket, I would just sit there and lick it until she looked. I would eat Quik by the spoonful, and would literally drink grenadine straight. Who needs the Sprite in a Shirley Temple?

Craving more chocolate? Read these:

Colin Gasko Is Making Chocolate from Wild Cacao

The Meadow’s Mark Bitterman: Don’t Call It Candy!

Top photo courtesy of Olive and Sinclair; image above by Flickr member kthread under Creative Commons

Rebecca Flint Marx eats and writes in New York City. You can follow her on Twitter. Follow CHOW, too, and become a fan on Facebook.