While the holiday season brings oodles of good eats, festive spirits and quality time with loved ones, too often the pursuit of the perfect gift can make the season of giving feel more stressful than enjoyable. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is here to help with a collection of foodie gifts full of Southern soul. From cocktail mixers to flaky pies to an impressive array of cheese, these gift ideas reflect the flavors of the South and its delicious traditions. Gifting food is a way to ensure it's put to use, whether your loved one enjoys it alone or shares it with others.
"[Food isn't] just a shirt that only you can put on or a pair of gloves that only you can wear," said Tiffani Neal, founder of Barlow's Foods. "You can make it and have an experience and then be able to share it with other people."
— Bittermilk: Whether you're a beverage connoisseur or a budding enthusiast, Charleston, South Carolina-based Bittermilk has a variety of cocktail mixers sure to impress your guests. With a background in the restaurant and bar industry, founders MariElena and Joe Raya developed their own take on high-quality mixers for the home bar. The couple wanted to make a product people would be proud of displaying alongside their favorite spirits, Joe said.
For a gift that blends the classic old-fashioned cocktail with Southern holiday flavors, MariElena suggests seasonal mixer No. 7, a gingerbread old-fashioned, which combines fresh ginger juice and sorghum molasses. Or for a more extensive gift, the Bittermilk Jar Bar includes the full line of Bittermilk mixers plus a mason jar cocktail shaker.
Price range: $15-$120. Available online or in select stores. bittermilk.com, 843-641-0455
— Queen's Reward Meadery: Jeri Carter, an elementary schoolteacher turned meadmaker, opened Mississippi's first meadery in 2018. The honey she uses in her mead comes straight from a Mississippi beekeeper, so it's like taking "a sip of our backyard," she said. She makes noncarbonated, wine-style meads with ABVs between 11% and 14%. Mead has a very mild flavor to begin with, Carter said, so it allows her creativity to run wild with the spices and fruits she can add. In addition to the local honey, she sources the rest of her ingredients from around the South whenever possible.
When looking for a mead to purchase, she suggests reading the flavor descriptions to compare it to your preferred wine. A seasonally appropriate option is a holiday mead called Winter Spice, which is a sweet mead aged with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg that can be served chilled or warm like a hot cider.
Price range: $27-$40. Available online and ships to 41 states, or in stores in Mississippi. queensreward.com, 662-823-6323
— River Street Sweets: While there is no shortage of treats in the South, River Street Sweets is one of Georgia's iconic purveyors of goodies, from glazed Georgia pecans to rich fudge. The Strickland family founded the candy shop in Savannah in 1973, and young Jennifer Strickland mixed up the first batch of fudge to sell in her parent's shop. Now, she and her brother Tim Strickland run the business.
Customers can visit one of the brick-and-mortar locations and peruse for gifts while sampling River Street Sweets' famous hand-dipped pralines, or they can order a gift basket online. Jennifer Strickland suggests opting for one of the classic assortments, which includes pralines, glazed pecans and bear claws, or splurging on the Taste of Georgia sampler to send a sweet reminder of the Peach state.
Price range: $20-$80. Available online or in stores. riverstreetsweets.com, 800-793-3876
—Southern Baked Pie Co.: This business began with a buttermilk pie recipe from Amanda Wilbanks' mother-in-law. Over the years, she built enough of a following to open her first brick-and-mortar shop in Gainesville, and now she has three more storefronts around metro Atlanta. For those outside of the city who want a taste of her Southern desserts, Wilbanks' pies can ship all over the country.
Southern Baked Pies are made by hand with Wilbanks' all-butter pie crust. Options include the holiday-appropriate cranberry apple pecan pie and savory potpies stuffed with pot roast or chicken. Upon arrival, the pies can be enjoyed immediately or saved in the freezer for up to six months. To receive pies in time for Christmas, place orders by Dec. 10.
Price range: $40-$135. Available online or in stores. southernbakedpie.com, 404-263-0656
— Oliver Farm Artisan Oils: For a gift of high-quality, cold-pressed oil, look no further than Clay Oliver's farm in Pitts, Georgia. Oliver has been pressing oil from sunflowers, pecans and peanuts since 2012, and he's only adding more varieties to his repertoire. His artisan oils took home Garden & Gun's Made in the South Award in 2015 and are used in Atlanta restaurants.
By using a cold-press process, Oliver's oils retain the nutrients and vitamins of the seeds or nuts. The result is a more intact and flavorful oil, Oliver said. It also better reflects the quality of ingredients, which Oliver sources from farms around South Georgia. Oliver Farm offers a variety of oils and infused oils, including unusual flavors like benne seed and okra. They all have their own best uses, whether it's for searing meat or drizzling over vegetables.
Price range: $3-$57. Available online or in store. The Station 31072, 110 Seventh Ave. W, Pitts. oliverfarm.com, 229-406-0906
— Carolina Ground: Baking enthusiasts can take a deep dive into flour's endless potential with products from western North Carolina-based mill Carolina Ground. Among her impressive list of know-hows, Jennifer Lapidus founded the mill as a way to connect farmers, millers and bakers by milling local grain from farms in North Carolina. The flours are all stone ground and cold milled on-site, a process that preserves the flavor and nutrients of the grain.
For ideas on how to use the various flours, add Lapidus' book, "Southern Ground," to the gift list. In it, she profiles top Southern bakers and includes more than 75 recipes organized by grain. Some helpful tips from Lapidus: Store flour by double bagging it in plastic bags, press the air out and keep in the freezer, and for the most accurate way to measure flour, use a scale.
Price range: $7-$32. Available online. carolinaground.com, carolinagroundinfogmail.com
— The Old Mill: This landmark has been milling in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, since 1830. To this day, the same mill grinds corn and wheat using the power of the Little Pigeon River. It's like its own ecosystem with the gristmill at the very center, providing products to two restaurants, a retail store, a pottery studio, a distillery and other businesses. There are countless gifts to choose from, including mixes for pancakes, biscuits and soups, but Jimmy Proffitt, The Old Mill historian and marketing manager, suggests the Breakfast at The Old Mill collection, which has pancake and biscuit mixes, grits, gravy and jam among its offerings. A gift from The Old Mill is like a little sliver of Tennessee, the South and the Great Smoky Mountains, Proffitt said.
"There's a little bit of that history in every bag that goes out," he said.
Price range: $9-$80. Available online or in store. The Old Mill General Store, 160 Old Mill Ave., Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. old-mill.com, 865-453-4628
— The Counter Cheesemongers: Cheese is a gift that keeps on giving, from building a charcuterie board for guests to relaxing on the weekend with a personal wedge. Owners Eric Casella and Nora Granger at The Counter Cheesemongers in Charleston, South Carolina, primarily work with lesser-known cheesemakers from the Southeast. All of their cheeses are cut to order and shipped on Mondays and Tuesdays in two days or overnight.
Popular varieties include Cottonbell from Boxcar Handmade Cheese in North Carolina, 12-month Gouda from Forx Farm in South Carolina and Walden from Sequatchie Cove Creamery in Tennessee.
For open-minded cheese lovers, Casella and Granger suggest the Cheesemakers Select package for which they choose the cheeses they're most excited about at the moment, making sure to include a variety of styles and milk types. Folks can also gift a collection of cheeses from specific creameries or purchase a cheese-of-the-month subscription to try out seasonal varieties. The last day for Christmas shipping orders is Dec. 17.
Price range: $12-$160. Available online or in store. The Counter Cheesemongers, 3973 Rivers Ave., North Charleston, South Carolina. countercheesemongers.com. ericandnoracountercheesemongers.com
(For Sequatchie Cove Creamery products, find local retailers or order online at sequatchiecovecheese.com.)
SAUCES AND SYRUPS
— Bourbon Barrel Foods: For a taste of Kentucky, look no further than Bourbon Barrel Foods' collection of smoked spices and sauces. Known for its microbrewed soy sauce, Bourbon Barrel Foods uses traditional Japanese methods paired with Kentucky-grown soybeans, soft red winter wheat and limestone-filtered spring water from Appalachia to produce a well-balanced, natural soy sauce. It brews for a year before it's pressed and barrel aged, which adds oakiness and char similar to a bottle of bourbon.
Great for bourbon drinkers and foodies alike, the Kentuckyaki sauce is a thinner version of teriyaki sauce sweetened with Kentucky-grown sorghum and finished off with a little bit of bourbon. Alongside the sauces, Bourbon Barrel Foods has a line of spices that are slow-smoked over bourbon barrel staves, and the jams and jellies combine Kentucky-grown fruits with a splash of bourbon.
Price range: $8-$50. Available online and in stores. Multiple locations. bourbonbarrelfoods.com, 502-333-6103
— Hoff & Pepper: The hot-sauce fanatics in your life will welcome Hoff & Pepper as a new addition to their collection. The Chattanooga-based company is owned and operated by Aaron "Hoff" and Michelle "Pepper" Hoffman. Their saucy products are made with locally grown peppers from a farm in nearby Dayton, which they pack fresh in vinegar and salt to give it a more pepper-forward flavor, Aaron said.
Some of their popular sauces include the Mean Green, which is a jalapeño-based sauce with lemongrass and parsley. It provides a citrusy flavor that pairs well with pizza and on seafood. The Wake Up Call is their take on sriracha, and it mixes cold brew coffee from a Tennessee roaster with curry, ginger and a touch of sweetness. For a taste of everything, Aaron suggests the Hoff Sauce gift set, which comes with three hot sauces and a barbecue sauce.
Price range: $10-$25. Available online and in stores. hoffandpepper.com, 423-652-6155
— Barlow's Foods: Breakfast is a Southern specialty, and there's no better way to show someone you care than by gifting them a mix to light up their mornings. Tiffani Neal's three-in-one pancake, biscuit and waffle mix is Southern cooking in a box, she said. But her syrups deserve a moment in the spotlight. In addition to classic maple syrup, Neal offers seasonal flavors that are perfect for drizzling on a pancake, over a biscuit or even mixed into a cocktail. Her peach cobbler syrup started the craze after she served it during a pop-up; since then, she's added flavors like blueberry lemon and strawberry bourbon in spring and summer, while her sweet potato syrup is perfect in the fall. And for those looking to gift a festive taste of the holidays, Neal's gingerbread syrup will be out around the first week of December as the perfect pairing for a bag of pancake mix.
Price range: $9-$27. Available online and in stores. barlowsfoods.com
— "Thank You Please Come Again" from The Bitter Southerner: While not exactly edible, "Thank You Please Come Again" documents photojournalist Kate Medley's road trip across the South, offering a glimpse of the service stations, convenience stores and quick stops that nourish Southerners when they're on the road. Over the course of 10 years, Medley explored the pockets of culture that flourish in small towns and cities. Complete with essays by Medley and Mississippi writer Kiese Laymon, the book is about the food these outposts serve and the communities that gather there for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Bitter Southerner co-founder Kyle Jones said.
Price: $46. Available online and in stores. bsgeneralstore.com.