A Q+A with Kaleena Goldsworthy-Warnock

Meet "The Bitters Girl." | Screenshot via Zoom interview

This piece is part of our Q+A series. Do you know someone we should interview? Nominate them at [email protected].

In honor of Drink Up Week, we took a moment to chat with Kaleena Goldsworthy-Warnock, aka “The Bitters Girl.” Kaleena was the first person in Chattanooga — and the state, for that matter — to create alcohol-based bitters. She’s also seen the early stages of popular local bars, teaches mocktail + cocktail classes at The Chattery, and likes thinking of bitters as potions that witches (er… bartenders) use. Let’s get to know her.

What is your name, job (or jobs), and 3-5 things you think people should know about you.

All right, so my name is Kaleena Goldsworthy-Warnock, and I’m the owner and founder of The Bitter Bottle. I’m also the owner and founder of Gold Craft, and I am the Program Director at Proof Bar & Incubator

  • I have an identical twin sister, who is a professional rock star, which is awesome.
  • I have a one-year-old daughter, her name is Olive.
  • And then the third thing… Oh, man. I have a degree in voice! 

Tell me about when you knew you wanted to pursue mixology and bitters + all the awesome things you’re doing now.

Yeah. So it’s, it’s hilarious, actually. I am from New York originally. And when I came down to Chattanooga, it was on vacation, and I stayed at The Crash Pad and became friends with the owners of The Crash Pad. One thing led to another, I decided that I wanted to leave New York, I didn’t know where I was going to go, but I started talking to the people that I had met in Chattanooga, and one day all of a sudden the emails just started going back and forth, and I got offered a job to work at the yet-to-be-opened Flying Squirrel. So I said, “I’m sorry, is this like a job offer and I’m getting offered a job?” And they said, “If you’ll move down here, then you got a job.” So I just packed up and I moved down.

About two weeks before it opened they told me I was going to be a bartender, and I never bartended a day in my life. I was 27 at the time, and in my head, I thought I was very far behind on, you know, everything “bartender.” I thought all bartenders knew everything about everything — I thought they knew how to make every drink. I quickly found out that that’s not always the case, but basically, in those two weeks leading up to when we opened and then continuing on, I took to learning bartending and that whole craft the way that I would have pursued a degree in school. I just started reading every book I could get my hands on back then. 

It was a really fantastic time for bartending education as well, brands were starting to really pick up on the need to educate the bartenders. So I fell into it at a really fantastic time, and my love for the industry and sort of the history behind it all grew. I’m completely enamored with historic cocktail culture. So like, why we drink the things we drink, and what is so alluring to specific ingredients and different cocktails and things like that. Basically, you know, I created a career for myself — I knew that I wanted to stay in hospitality. But I certainly knew that specifically bartending and management wasn’t always where I wanted to stay. I always kind of had that feeling that I think a lot of people who start their own businesses have, where it’s like, “Okay, I’m learning these things so that one day I can do my own thing.” And working for Dan and Max at the Flying Squirrel was so inspiring, you know, it was their first bar restaurant. And so being a part of their opening team, I kind of joke that it was basically like getting a Master’s in restaurant and business management. Because we learned a lot, we went through a lot, and it was so inspiring working for people like that, learning the ins and outs. That was when I decided that I wanted to start my own company. 

So I left the Flying Squirrel to open the Bitter Bottle. I knew I wanted to do bitters, just because of my love of, you know, the history behind it all. Bartenders are almost like little witches, and they’re working with all these potions. I was so fascinated by that, and then I started to understand and like bitters a little bit better. So I just started making all these things in my apartment — I read, like, one book and started ordering from a Chinese medicine shop in Seattle, and just started making things. And then I was like, “this is pretty cool, I like this, I think I’m just going to start a business doing this.” I quickly found out that nobody in Tennessee had ever made alcohol-based bitters before, because we have a lot of laws. So it became a very challenging business prospect, but I was kind of in the right place at the right time. And I was very bold. I just started writing to a legal team…And I was like, “I want to start a bitters company.” They said, “well, you know, we could add this line, would this help you?” And I said, “Yes.” And then it passed. That was in May of 2017, and then we finally got our products to market in December of 2019. 

And then the other company that I just started this year, Gold Craft, is the educational and consulting side of things. So I’m very passionate about teaching, you know, like cocktail classes and doing pop-ups and helping businesses, especially on the beverage side of things. So it just kind of continued to spiral, and it’s been really fun. I’ve learned so much. Very challenging, but we’re still here.

So, what goes into being a beverage consultant?

Well, I love the conversation of beverage consultants now because I think that there’s kind of a running joke in the industry that like, once you’re graduating from bartending, you become a beverage consultant. And, you know, what does that mean? Well, it means I help you do whatever it is that you need to do regarding a beverage, product, or you know, whatever it is — but it’s not really like that, and I think that the people who are experienced consultants will be a little bit more succinct in what they offer.

So for me personally, I offer a lot of spirit education. I’m a certified spirit specialist. So I studied my stuff, and I really, really love to talk and learn about it. I really lean into what my expertise is. So, I’ve worked as a bartender, a bar manager, [and] a restaurant manager, I can assist on a lot of those fronts. But really, where I love to assist people is on menu development and menu costing, things like that. And I do help a lot of people who own small businesses in the beverage industry. So trying to you know, like, clean up their processes or operating procedures, and things like that.

Normally it’s working with the businesses themselves. And a lot of times, you know, people will hire beverage consultants to open a bar and stuff like that. And then it’s a much more extensive process, like you’re gonna be living and breathing and working in that place for like, 40-50+ hours a week. And there are some really fantastic beverage consultants that do that. That’s not something that I typically do for people. I think that bartenders have a tendency or have a reputation of being a bit pretentious, and like, acting like we know everything. And I love to kind of lead with honesty and to say, like, I don’t want to waste your time… This is what I’m good at. This is what I know I can help you with. And that’s kind of what I lean on.

What was the last local business you stopped by?

Oh, man, um, where did I go last? Actually, my sister-in-law just moved here, so I took her to Public House with my one-year old-daughter. Hilarious. She had a full-on mashed potato, like, opposite of a tantrum — just throwing her head back and cackling while eating mashed potatoes, and waving to every single person that came into the restaurant. 

Who are 2-3 other local leaders you’re inspired by? Why?

Oh, man. Okay. Well, I have to definitely say one of my closest friends and somebody who continues to inspire me is Sanders Parker, who’s the Executive Chef and the [General Manager] over at Flying Squirrel. Obviously, I worked with him for a very long time, and I don’t think I’ve ever met somebody that I worked so well with. We just like, have those personalities that clicked and we got along really well. Since I’ve left, I’ve just continued to watch him grow his skill set, and become even better and better. And, you know, I always thought the Flying Squirrel was amazing when I was there. And it’s so inspiring to see that almost 10 years later, it’s still doing so well. And it’s still, you know, raising the bar and the food is exquisite. I don’t know how to not be inspired by somebody like that, you know, let alone for staying at the same company for that long in the hospitality industry too, which is kind of unheard of. 

And then, you know, I also have to say, I work at Proof with Mike Robinson and Mia Littlejohn. I just feel so honored to work with people like them. The experience and resume that they both have — I continue to learn from them. It’s also been an inspiring journey working with them because they both have kids as well. So I’ve never worked with people in food and beverage that actually have families too. They understand the sometimes not-so-subtle nuances of trying to balance, you know, like children and doctor’s appointments and your jobs. I do not know how they do it. They’re absolutely amazing. I mean, I just feel so very fortunate to have been a part of the startup community in Chattanooga for so long that like, there’s so many people that inspire me. We live in a pretty fantastic city for being a small business owner or working in small businesses.

What do you wish Chattanoogans knew about the food + bev world?

Well, I have to say one of my favorite things about it is the fact that when you’re kind of in downtown proper, everything is still a local restaurant, or for the most part it is. And to me, that speaks so largely to what Chattanooga is all about. You know, you can find like a Panera, obviously. But it’s interesting to me that you know, like the Applebee’s or the Chili’s goes out of business before a local restaurant. And I know that the pandemic definitely has taken its toll on it, but the fight that we’ve seen in food and beverage here has been incredible. And so I think, what I want people to know about the food and beverage scene in Chattanooga, is that we just have a very strong one. And I know that might be kind of an obvious statement. But Chattanooga is kind of seen as not a big city, you know, we’re not Nashville. We’re not Atlanta. Maybe we’re Birmingham. Maybe we’re not even Birmingham? I don’t know. Depends on where you’re coming from, I think. But to me, you know, especially coming from New York, where people always talk about New York City, and then you talk about Chattanooga, and they’re like, “what’s in Chattanooga?” There’s a lot of outdoor stuff, but it’s like, no — the food. I mean, so many local restaurants. I’ve been here for nine years now, which is wild. And my husband and I will think about where we want to go for dinner and it’s hard for us to pick a spot because we always want to go to someplace different, and there’s new places that are constantly opening up. 

And Chattanooga loves local, like, we still love it so much, which I think is really cool. I mean, obviously we’re seeing that like, the Starbucks and Chipotle have come in, but I feel like nine times out of 10 the people in Chattanooga are always gonna go for Sunnyside Cup or, you know, something else instead of like the Dunkin Donuts on their way to work. Right? At least I hope so. I don’t know. I’m that way. 

And I think it’s so cool too that we have an opportunity like Whole Foods to carry local products. When you go to Whole Foods and you go to the coffee section, the fact that you can find a bunch of local coffee roasters, like almost more than not. So I think that’s the other thing that’s really cool, is the willingness of a lot of retailers to carry local products. Yeah, we just, we just love Chattanooga so much. 

What is your process in creating a signature drink? 

Oooh… So when it comes to creating a signature drink for me, not to say I’m kind of a purist… but I’m kind of a purist. I used to be the kind of bartender that would try to go for, you know, very unique ingredients, or some rare spirit. But what I’ve found has really become my style is really, I want things to be accessible to other people. And that’s something that I think is really important. But for some reason, I feel like a lot of times making cocktails feels out of reach for people, like we have no issue googling online or searching on Pinterest for a recipe to cook for dinner, but if we do that for a cocktail, we think like, “oh, this is gonna taste good? I’m just not gonna be able to do it.” And I think that’s because people haven’t quite, you know, come around to understanding what makes a balanced drink, or looking at a recipe and understanding what that is. 

So what I love to do is take a look at a classic cocktail, and just kind of, you know, rework it a little bit. I personally love to work with seasonal things. So pretty much my entire existence in Chattanooga has been based around working with Crabtree Farms, seeing what they have, working with local spirits companies if they have new products to work with. That’s the kind of innovation that I’m excited to work on. And then I kind of create something based on simplicity and what the seasons have to offer us. I like to joke that I’m the kind of person that you hire when you want a cocktail that’s like, “use a pear five different ways” instead of the person who’s going to create, you know, some crazy upscale drink using some obscure Sherry and a Navy Strength Rum or something. I mean, can I do it? Sure. But really what I love to do is just make things fun, and accessible, and simple because honestly, I think that some of the best cocktails are just that. I don’t know if that was a long winded answer to your question.

Coffee vs. tea. Which one and why? 

You know, I’m gonna say like, 90% of the time it’s coffee. But as an herbalist, I also have a soft spot in my heart for tea. That being said, I am not a morning person, and I have a baby. So coffee is a must. And then I normally turn to a green tea and then an herbal tea in the evening. So I’m kind of a solid “both,” but I absolutely could not function without coffee.

This is a hard one. What do you think is the best drink — alcoholic or otherwise — currently being served in Chattanooga?

You know, I have to be honest, I’m the worst person to answer this because I haven’t been to a bar in a very long time. I’ve been going to Local Juice a lot — I love the Triathlete, it’s a smoothie, and I’m always a sucker for ginger juice.

Where is your favorite place to get a mocktail in Chattanooga?

Proof has always had really fun ones (not to toot my own horn as a place where I work). Flying Squirrel, Easy Bistro… I think we’ve come to a place where every craft bar can make a mocktail that’s not just sprite, mint, and sour mix. Unknown had some good ones when I was pregnant. We’re very fortuanate now to have great ones.

If Chattanooga were a drink, what would it be and why?

Oh, oh my gosh, Chattanooga is gonna be an Old Fashioned with Chattanooga Whiskey and the Bitter Bottle’s bitters.