The story of the sweet Southern spirit that couldn’t stay stocked begins with a retirement plan that failed miserably.
Jim Irvin bought the sea island property from which Firefly Distillery and its now-familiar Sweet Tea Vodka sprang with his new bride and with a plan to wind down together there. Ann Irvin dreamed of raising free-range chickens on the land, where live oaks stretch toward the sky wearing coronas of Spanish moss.
But the couple faced burdensome regulations, and rural dogs attacked the few birds they had.
“I gave her one not torn up so bad and told her to pluck it, and that was the end of chickens,” Jim Irvin remembers.
So the retired builder with a chemistry degree registered for an online winemaking class at the University of California’s renowned Davis campus and took his first step on a project that would challenge state laws, spawn more than a dozen copycats and bring the flavor of rural Charleston County to every state in the nation.
Vodka is a big but mature business. Sales increased about 2 percent between 2008 and 2009, according to the most current information available through the Distilled Spirits Council, a trade organization. The colorless beverage claims the largest chunk of the market at nearly 30 percent of the spirits industry, or more than double the No. 2 category — rum.
Flavored vodkas became a fast-growing trend this decade. Between 2003 and 2007 the number of brands grew 62 percent, the council found. It does not track sales specifically in the flavored vodka submarket.
Firefly won’t release its figures, but Irvin’s partner, Scott Newitt, describes 2010 as “a soft year.” The distillery couldn’t make the stuff fast enough in 2008, grew its distribution network in 2009 and then faced the onslaught of competition that followed.
“And we’re really not out of the recession now in the alcohol business,” Newitt said.
Still, the company plans to introduce two more flavors this spring to bring its total vodka offerings to nine and to take Firefly one step further in becoming an established national brand.
That’s the spirit
The Irvins purchased their estate off Bears Bluff Road in 2000 from the former owner of a horse-drawn tour business. After ruling out poultry, they rallied a few patient family members and set about digging 3,500 post holes to grow 11.5 acres of muscadine grapes.
The sweet and plump fruit contains an extra set of chromosomes that other grapes lack, making it capable of surviving and thriving in unforgiving humidity. The Irvins use no fungicide or pesticide to keep the hearty grapes growing on their land, which became Irvin-House Vineyards, home of Live Oak Wine.
A small operation with no in-store sales outside South Carolina, the sweet wine still drew a strong local following that left Jim Irvin spending his supposed post-work life stocking grocery store shelves himself. Crouched over bottles of white and red inside the Harris Teeter supermarket on East Bay Street in 2003, he met a representative from Republic National Distributing Co. who told him he should meet a colleague — Newitt, now known as “the Firefly guy.”
Then again, so is Irvin. Partners in the vodka venture, both men answer to the title.
Irvin explains their dynamic: “I’m everything in the bottle. He’s everything out of the bottle.”
Newitt had worked for Gallo and then RNDC, marketing and distributing wine and spirits for 14 years by then. He also recently had bought a still, a real relic that shot flames from the bottom and now sits dormant on display in the liquor tasting room at the vineyard.
A few months after he met Irvin, the grape-derived Ciroc vodka arrived in the United States, and the two began working on their first and now-seasonal product: muscadine vodka. They faced their first obstacle when they learned that state law required a $50,000 licensing fee to operate a distillery, so Firefly began in Florida.
They lobbied, showing the cash leaving the state, and got that fee changed to $1,500, though it later rose to $5,000. In June 2007, they fired up the old still, as the demand for flavored vodkas reached its peak on the bar scene.
Somewhere between another brand’s launch of a green tea vodka and the memory of Newitt’s Aunt Dot mixing her sweet tea with the vodka back home in Louisiana in the 1970s, an idea germinated.
Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka uses real tea, real cane sugar, vodka and water.
“The only thing there is caramel color, and that’s nothing more than burnt sugar,” Newitt says.
The name came from Newitt’s love of the night-bright insects and the success of the “critter label” Yellow Tail in wine. As he explains it, younger drinkers who wanted a brand apart from their parents’ gravitated toward the springy little wallaby.
The vodka launched in April 2008, just as McDonald’s amped-up advertising for the nonalcoholic version of the sugary Southern drink it dispenses for a dollar. People driving across South Carolina saw the billboards and heard the commercials.
At the same time, the social networking site Facebook had reached its own boom, and by summer’s end, Firefly had collected so many “friends” that it hit the 5,000-person limit and started a fan page.
Newitt pushed Firefly into 10 states in those early years, but then, as he recalls, “in September, we ran out of money.”
Distributors slow to pay bills, coupled with limited cash flow, sent the partners begging at banks in Atlanta. Investors stepped forward, but they wanted controlling interest in the product.
Then New Orleans-based Sazerac Co. called. The company’s Buffalo Trace distillery in Frankfurt, Ky., would help produce Firefly and take it to the remaining 40 states for a small portion of the trademark. The joint venture operated on only a handshake until last year, long after Sweet Tea Vodka had found its way into every corner of America.
By then, 15 knockoff brands had popped up — nearly all produced by major labels. The one that really offended Newitt, a brand called Sweet Carolina, hails from Maine.
But the sweet tea explosion also meant that the beverage got its own chunk of precious real estate in liquor stores and better exposure for the original product. People wanted to see its local origins, so Newitt and Irvin lobbied lawmakers once again, this time to open tasting rooms for both wine and liquors out at the Irvin property.
The Firefly empire now includes bourbon, rum and seven flavors of vodka. As for the two new vodkas in the coming year, Newitt and Irvin are keeping mum on details ahead of the launch.
About 35 percent of Firefly’s product, essentially South Carolina’s share of its sales, begins on Wadmalaw in two 300-gallon drums.
The brand is potent enough now that the distillery has become a mini-tourist attraction unto itself. About 300 visitors every week make the journey out to the property, down a narrow gravel path to a tasting room nestled between rows of resilient muscadines and a heavily fortified chicken coop.