An Interview with Jason and Laurie Benjamin of Lowcountry Olive Oil
HCH: I know you mentioned your wife has a background in Marketing and you were the head carpenter at Kiawah, but what made you and your wife decide to go into the
olive oil and balsamic vinegar business?
Laurie was four months pregnant with our daughter Ella when we started. She was actually looking for a way to leave her Marketing career and be a stay-at-home Mom. We both had a passion for gourmet food so this was an exciting new venture for us. We were able to find experts who taught us about the infusion process. We sold exclusively at farmers markets and special events for a few years and then opened our first retail store in Charleston in 2013. We hired a part-time staff person to help Laurie in the shop at first; [I] was able to leave [my] job at Kiawah in early 2014.
HCH: How long has Low Country Olive Oil been in business?
Since 2011, we’re going in to our 5th year in business.
HCH: How important is it to your business to provide local products to local chefs and bars?
We don’t pretend to be chefs. While we do provide oils and vinegars to several of the restaurants on Kiawah Island, namely Tomasso Italian Restaurant, we know that our local chefs are well skilled at infusing oils. Most of our restaurant orders are for uninfused oils and vinegars, but occasionally we’ll partner with a local restaurant on special menu items. Recently we partnered with Homegrown Brewhouse, which is next to our Summerville store. They created a pumpkin ale waffle with vanilla ice-cream and our locally infused chocolate balsamic vinegar.
HCH: You have a multitude of amazing flavors of both your olive oils and balsamic vinegars, how do you decide what flavors you will be making next?
We follow the food trends. For example bourbon is everywhere right now. We are the only company in the world that makes bourbon-infused balsamic vinegar. Sometimes our creations are wildly popular like the bourbon or the upcoming stout-infused balsamic vinegar; sometimes they bomb, like the Jasmine-infused balsamic vinegar we launched at the 2015 Charleston Food and Wine Festival. It was expensive to make and just a little too unusual for people, so we pulled that one. We might try it again in a few years.
HCH: Where does Low Country Olive Oil source their base olive oil?
We work closely as possible with local and regional farmers, what we can’t purchase regionally, we purchase directly from the farmers themselves. It depends on the flavor, we like a bold Arbequina for our basil oil. Right now most of the base for our oils comes from Argentina. It’s a mild olive oil that works well for infusing, although we do also use Olinda Brand olive oil from the Decamilla Family here in Charleston. They have a farm in Orland, CA. We are also a retailer of Georgia Grown Olive Oil, but it’s a little too expensive for us to use base oil. All of our oils are tested to ensure they meet the standard for extra virgin olive oil set by the California Olive Oil Council.
HCH: Your balsamic vinegars are unlike any you can buy at the typical supermarkets here in Charleston, could you tell me a little bit more about what makes them so special?
Our artisan quality balsamic vinegar of Modena Italy is made using a 100 year old family recipe. The process begins with the careful selection of Lambrusco and Trebbiano grapes grown in the Modena region. These grapes are pressed and the resulting just called “must” is heated in copper cauldrons until the volume is reduced through evaporation by about 40%. The liquid is then decanted into wooden chestnut barrels and left to age and transform into vinegar. As time goes by, part of the liquid evaporates and part of the liquid is absorbed into the wood. The liquid is transferred into smaller oak barrels while the new “must” is added to top-off the bigger barrel. The process is repeated with juniper and cherry barrels until the vinegar is ready for bottling.
HCH: Could you also tell me what makes your olive oil so unique?
We are unique among olive oil shops in that we work directly with small farms instead of purchasing oil en masse from large corporate distributors who would overlook these small farms. In terms of flavor infused olive oils, we study the flavors the large corporate distributors carry. We carry some of the most common flavors but we also create exclusive blends like “spicy mushroom onion and garlic” olive oil. Charleston’s unique in the culinary realm. Our customer’s are looking for oils that aren’t found at every other olive oil store in America; we offer those oils.
HCH: What is your favorite olive oil and balsamic vinegar out of your entire selection and how do you and your wife typically use those respective products?
Jason: [I am] a big fan of the black-truffle garlic oil. [I love] it on fresh pasta. (We’re huge fans of the locally-owned Bertollini pasta company). As a craft beer enthusiast, [I’m] pretty excited about the possibilities with our upcoming Stout Balsamic; delicious over hard cheeses. It should be ready mid-November.
Laurie: My favorite is the meyer lemon olive oil. I love to bake; I use it instead of butter in almost all of my baked goods (cakes, muffins, quickbreads, waffles, pancakes). I also love it with fish dishes. It offers such a nice fresh flavor. For balsamic vinegar, I’d have to say I’m a traditionalist. I prefer our 18 year-aged. The flavors are fun, but it’s really hard to improve on a classic. I use it on almost everything. Although I recently had a customer introduce me to the concept of balsamic pie….I’ll have to try that.