Food & Wine // 5 min Read

Making Better Bitters

Written by Barry Kaufman

Apr 23, 2019

Every drink tells a story.

At Cole’s, it’s the story of Palmetto Bluff’s delicious natural bounty. It’s one thing to mix a drink. It’s another to tell a story in a glass, one written in delicate flavor notes and carefully chosen ingredients. step up to the bar at Cole’s and you’ll enjoy a drink that comes with a story written across generations of family tradition and steeped in ingredients grown right here in the wilds of Palmetto Bluff.

That storytelling, that dedication to crafting something beyond the ordinary, has long been a hallmark of Palmetto Bluff’s food and beverage teams. Their regular brainstorming sessions are rife with inspiration and ideas that push the boundaries of what their menus can be. During one of the regular brainstorming sessions among the resort’s food and beverage staff, Director of Wine Jesse Rodriguez’s simple request, “Look for the next best thing,” found fertile soil in the imagination of Cole’s Restaurant Manager Robin Whitaker.

“I’m a very firm believer that you don’t need to get everything off the shelf,” Whitaker said.
“My grandfather taught me to live off the land and make everything from scratch.”

In pursuit of the next best thing, Whitaker returned to childhood memories of wandering a North Carolina forest with her grandfather searching for ingredients. “That’s how I found out about sassafras. We’d go out around the grounds near his house, and I remember him pulling up this plant and asking him what he was doing. He said, ‘I’m going to make tea.’”

A young Whitaker watched as her grandfather peeled off the bark of the plant with practiced ease, sliced up the roots, and simmered it for 20 minutes to release its naturally sweet flavors. That cup of sassafras tea, brewed from a plant her grandfather pulled from the ground, bubbled up in Whitaker’s memory as she pursued the next best thing. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology that is YouTube, she found a multitude of instructional videos on foraging ingredients to create bespoke bitters. This artisanal touch not only allowed Whitaker to gain even more control over the flavor profile, but it also provided the perfect way to to lend an air of homegrown authenticity to her beverage list.

“We do have around 20,000 acres here at Palmetto Bluff, and that’s a lot of forest for foraging ingredients,” Whitaker said. “That’s when I emailed Jay (Walea) and told him I wanted to make root bitters, so I was going to need sassafras.”

She couldn’t have found a better guide for her foraging. For more than 25 years, Walea has stewarded the land at Palmetto Bluff, going back to its days as a retreat for Union Camp executives. If there is anyone who would know where to find the most flavorful herbs, roots, and leaves for Cole’s cocktails, it would be Jay. The two of them began planning regular retreats far afield in search of ingredients, plying the deer trails and tracks through Palmetto Bluff’s wilderness and sampling flavors along the way.

Beyond the sassafras that Whitaker says grows rampantly within the Bluff’s forests, she and Walea have plucked blackberry leaves, intensely bitter devil’s club root, and sweetleaves that pack an intense Granny Smith apple flavor. With each plant they uncover, Whitaker’s wheels turn with ideas for how each could complement a beverage.

“I’ve always felt every restaurant needs their own specific drink,” Whitaker said. One of her favorites is the Cole’s Fashioned, created with orange bitters she blends daily inside a large kettle within Cole’s liquor cage. The kettle shortens a 22-day process of soaking ingredients in Everclear-filled Mason jars to a four-hour low simmer that coaxes flavors to the forefront.

“This accelerated process heats up the alcohol to
106 degrees, which is the magic temperature. It doesn’t burn off the alcohol, but it extracts flavor a lot more.”

As the weather warms up and Whitaker heads back out with Walea in search of the next best thing, keep your eyes on Cole’s drink menu. The next cocktail you enjoy might just have its roots in your own backyard.


Cole’s Fashioned

2.5 oz. Virgil Kaine ginger bourbon

A “scoach” of simple syrup

Luxardo cherries

Orange slice

House-made orange bitters

Muddle bourbon and simple syrup with Luxardo cherries and orange slice. Add two dashes of house-made orange bitters. Add ice. Garnish with brûléed orange slice.

Photography by Krisztian Lonyai