Firefly Distillery outside of Charleston puts a spin on the traditional Southern beverage

Hilton Head Island Packet
Maureen Simpson
August 6, 2008

Somewhere, on some porch in South Carolina, a Southern gentleman is holding a glass of sweet tea and kicking himself.

While he was busy sipping on the South’s favorite saccharine beverage, Jim Irvin and Scott Newitt were finding a way to make it better.

The owners of Firefly Distillery, located 30 miles south of Charleston on Wadmalaw Island, have created a new cup of tea for the Lowcountry bar scene and beyond: Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka.

“Most good ideas are real simple. And sweet tea’s real simple,” said Newitt, a longtime wine and liquor distributor who pitched the idea to Irvin, a business partner who started Wadmalaw Island winery in 2000. “We wanted to be the South’s vodka, so I said there’s nothing more Southern than sweet tea and nobody’s come out with a flavored vodka like that. All the distilleries up north or out west wouldn’t even think of it.”

The vodka, made with five-time distilled muscadine grapes from Irvin’s vineyard and infused with American tea, only hit the market in April, but quickly has become popular among bar patrons in the state looking for a perfect toast to the Lowcountry.

“We started carrying it about a month and a half ago, and we go through close to a bottle of it a night. Everybody asks about it,” said Bryan Parkin, a bartender at The Lodge on Hilton Head Island. “It’s also nice because of the vacationers. It’s a local product, so it’s a good way for them to see a side of South Carolina.”

Though some customers will order the vodka as a shot, Parkin said many prefer to mix it with lemonade and water. The Back Bar at Pepper’s Porch in Bluffton serves the vodka with pink lemonade.

“Everybody says it’s a little too easy to drink,” bartender Mark Pace said. “We sell it like wildfire.”

Ed Fishel, who advertises Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka as “Lowcountry sweet tea with a kick” at his Belfair Fine Wines & Spirits store in Bluffton, said that much of the interest in the product seems to generate from Charleston, where the distillery began marketing the drink in the spring.

“People from here have gone to visit in Charleston and had it in a bar or somebody from Charleston came down here and told somebody about it, so they’re looking for it,” Fishel said. “It’s one of those weird things that has just caught on. Just the concept of being in the South and having a vodka called ‘sweet tea vodka’ seems to ring a bell.”

Newitt, however, credits McDonald’s, tourists and timing for the success.

“There’s a little company out there with golden arches that decided to turn the entire country on to sweet tea with their campaign in May, so sweet tea’s on everybody’s mind,” Newitt said. “Also, we get 21 million visitors to South Carolina between Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head and Charleston this time of year. They’re all being introduced to it, taking it home and hitting our Web site.”

He said the demand for Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka has been so high that they’re having to produce the drink at a distillery in Florida, in addition to their 3,500 square foot place in Charleston.

Eventually, Newitt said, the goal is to find a space large enough to house the entire business just in South Carolina.

“Most distilleries, if they’re lucky, do a thousand cases a month. We have the capacity to do 4,000 cases a month (on Wadmalaw), and last month we did 8,800 cases,” he said. “We’ve doubled and tripled every month, and we’re just selling in South Carolina. It’s old school, gravity-fed, hand-bottled, hand-labeled vodka, so we’re at our max with what we can do right now. The growth has been phenomenal.”

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