HOW HERITAGE SHORTBREAD INTRODUCED A GENERATIONS-OLD RECIPE TO A GLOBAL AUDIENCE.
Over the course of its centuries-long history, Scotland has given many gifts to the world. The sublime smokiness of single malt. The beautiful frustration that is the game of golf. The timeless class and sophistication of Sir Sean Connery.
But perhaps none are as delectable as simple shortbread. The crumbly, buttery treat somehow embodies hospitality, whether it’s enjoyed alongside a steaming cup of tea or as a gift.
“When my mother got out the shortbread pans, that always meant something was happening. Either it was a holiday, or it was being made as a present,” said Willow Cole (née McGrain). “She’d never tell anyone how she made it because every Scottish person has their own recipe.”
Fortunately, Cole’s Scottish-born mother eventually passed the McGrain family recipe down to her daughter. And when her mother passed away, Cole decided to carry on that legacy of delicious hospitality — and share it with the world.
What started out as a small side business selling shortbread based on her mother’s recipe and baked by her husband, Tom, has snowballed into an international success story. Today, Heritage Shortbread can be found in gift shops from Hilton Head Island to Canada, South Korea and Japan, still made with that delicious original recipe.
“I just thought it’d be great to create something on the island that people could get as a gift to take home,” Cole said.
But something in her recipe struck a chord with foodies, and soon she and her husband were seeing potential far beyond the Lowcountry’s shores. Before long, Heritage Shortbread was being stocked by stores like Neiman Marcus and Dean & DeLuca.
“We’re proud of where we come from,” Cole said. “I’ll go with Tom to food shows in New York and San Francisco, and when we say we’re from Hilton Head, everyone knows Hilton Head.”
It also doesn’t hurt that Heritage Shortbread’s location allows it to play off the Lowcountry’s famed hospitality and enjoy easy access to shipping.
“The beauty of any kind of mass shipping is you have the Port of Savannah right there,” Cole said. “We seem remote on this sleepy, beautiful island, and yet we’re able to produce it and the trucks take it to Savannah and off it goes. It’s very user-friendly that way.”
Despite the now-global reach of the cookie’s empire, Heritage Shortbread is still made in a Hilton Head bakery by the husband-and-wife team. Cole was disabled in a car accident, so her husband oversees the bakery while also running his own chiropractic clinic.
“I come up with the ideas, but he’s the one that does the yeoman’s work,” she said. “He’s really the one who’s there all the time.”
And it’s under Tom Cole’s watchful eye that Willow’s mother’s legacy is carried on, with deep respect for that tradition informing new additions — like the lemon-infused shortbread — to the product line.
“My mother was a purist. Our twist was to add lemon, but we use pure lemon oil — there are never extracts or additives,” Willow Cole said. There’s also royal lavender shortbread, which has its own United Kingdom inspiration. “I read an article on Princess Diana. When she was having horrible morning sickness and was hospitalized with her first baby, the only thing she could eat was lavender shortbread. So I said (to Tom), ‘You better go develop that.’ ”
And even as the product line has grown and flourished, it’s still very much a family affair. “Several times, we’ve looked into outsourcing,” Willow Cole said, “but if you’re not there and on top of it, it will morph into something that’s just a commodity.”
Instead, it remains a testament to a family tradition and a Scottish treasure.
WHERE TO BUY
Heritage Shortbread can be purchased in gift shops around the world. In the Lowcountry, it can be found at Pyramids on Hilton Head Island and at RT’s Market in Palmetto Bluff in greater Bluffton. Or go online to www.heritageshortbread.com.