The day before I interviewed Olive & Sinclair owner and chocolate maker Scott Witherow, I stopped off at The Turnip Truck, a local grocery store—the former employer of alt-country superstar Sturgill Simpson—to pick up some Olive & Sinclair chocolate. I had to. It was research, after all. I needed the chocolate for inspiration, even though I was already familiar with the brand. I decided to go for my two favorites: the Salt & Pepper Buttermilk White Chocolate Bar and the Bourbon Nib Brittle.
The Bourbon Nib Brittle was both sweet and smoky—kind of like your perfect dessert and cocktail all rolled into one. Then came the white chocolate. How is it possible for white chocolate to be this good? I wondered, as I quickly devoured the bar. I don’t usually go for the pale stuff but Olive & Sinclair white chocolate is unlike any I’ve ever tasted, boosted by tangy buttermilk and cracked black pepper that delivers an extra kick.
Inspired by the method used for stone-ground grits using melanguers (stone mills) from the early 1900s, Olive & Sinclair’s single-origin cacao beans are slow-roasted and ground in small batches. The beans are then combined with pure brown sugar for a flavor profile definitive to what Olive & Sinclair has dubbed “Southern Artisan Chocolate.” “While most everything we do at Olive & Sinclair is inherently Southern by nature,” says owner and maker, Scott Witherow, “we also like to believe that when you slow down enough to think about it, it just makes sense.”
Housed in an old grocery store built in 1890 in the heart of East Nashville, Olive & Sinclair is Tennessee’s first and only bean-to-bar chocolate company. The front of the factory is a retail space filled with Olive & Sinclair wares, free samples and reclaimed fixtures. Look to the right through the glass window, and you can see chocolate being made. “As a kid, I had a briefcase filled with candy that I used to carry around all the time,” Scott says. Fueled by this sweet-toothed obsession, Scott’s candy cravings finally got the best of him in 2007, when he founded Olive & Sinclair after years of working in the food industry. Prior to opening the business, Scott spent time working and schooling in London where he earned a Le Grand Diplôme from Le Cordon Bleu.
At first, Scott oven-roasted and hand-cracked the beans, making three to five pounds of chocolate at a time. He then tinkered around, testing out small batches on family and friends, separating the nibs from the brittle, papery cacao hulls using a hair dryer and an old French chinois he brought home from culinary school. “The plan was to make a high-quality chocolate that was as delicious as it was southern and approachable,” he adds. Things quickly caught on. “I made a batch and gave it away, and soon after that, we started getting calls from stores wanting to carry our products. We ended up getting a lot of press that year. It all happened really naturally.”
With inspired flavors like Mexican Style Cinnamon Chili Chocolate and Salt & Pepper 67% Chocolate, Olive & Sinclair sweets are both grown-up and unusual. Hand-crafted by artisans who love using food as a medium for creativity, Olive & Sinclair products utilize high-quality ingredients and fair trade, organic cacao beans—but those practices aren’t enough. Scott and his team enjoy forging unique partner collaborations with other southern businesses, which have included Corsair Distillery (where they age cacao nibs in small-batch bourbon barrels for their caramelized, buttery Bourbon Nib Brittle) and Allan Benton’s prized smokehouse (where they smoke cacao nibs for their sweet and savory Smoked Nib Brittle), among others. “Almost all of the collaborations that we’ve done were never done intentionally.” Scott says. “Allan Benton and I have been friends for quite a while. I order slabs of bacon from him to divvy up among the crew. One day, I called to order more, and he asked if he could put some cacao beans in his smokehouse to see if he could smoke them. He sent them back, and they were amazing! That’s how the smoked nib brittle was born.”
Fueled by the success of these experimentations, as well as their award-winning Duck Fat Caramels, Scott and team are working on a new line called Seersucker, which focuses on confections. “We’re trying to expand into different areas,” he says. “We don’t want to be pigeonholed into just bean-to-bar chocolate.” Olive & Sinclair is widely recognized for its outstanding packaging—the letterpress-inspired wrappers are gorgeous. The Seersucker product line will continue this tradition with vintage-style packaging in the likeness of phonograph tubes. The Cherry Bomb, a pickled cherry cordial, is delightfully tart and sweet.
In addition to the new line, the team has lots of fun things planned for the future, including a Choc Block anniversary party of sorts to be held this June in Nashville featuring a cocoa-roasted whole hog from acclaimed pitmaster Pat Martin, the sounds of the band Self, and chocolate mud wrestling. The ticketed event will highlight Olive & Sinclair products, along with the likes of those from Blackberry Farm. Additional Nashville vendors, including Biscuit Love and Yazoo Brewery, will be there as well, and there are plans to make this an annual celebration.
Olive & Sinclair is proud to be the paramount bean-to-bar chocolate maker in the South and thrilled to expand the thriving business. Whether using buttermilk instead of traditional milk solids in their white chocolate or testing out new creations, Scott and his team are happy to render the South’s food legacy into their sweet confections. Olive & Sinclair products are available at boutique stores throughout the U.S., and can be purchased online through their website. Factory tours in Nashville are offered on Saturdays. (Reservations must be booked online in advance.)