January 25, 2009

S.C.-born sweet tea vodka quenching nation's thirst

WADMALAW ISLAND -- Scott Newitt had this dream for years: He wanted to make his own vodka.

He was doing well, working since 2000 as a general manager for a large wine and spirits company along the South Carolina coast after 10 years as a regional manager for Gallo wines.

But he kept coming back to this idea about making liquor. He already had the still -- a 55-gallon stainless steel and copper one built for him years earlier in Cincinnati.

Meanwhile, Jim Irvin, 62 -- Newitt's eventual partner in producing sweet tea vodka -- had spent most of his life as a land developer. His wife died in 1999, and he met his future wife, Ann, in 2000. They were looking for something different to do.

The Irvins saw a brochure for a 50-acre farm on Wadmalaw Island, just south of Charleston. They signed a contract to buy the place the day after they saw it.

"It looked like what I needed at the time," Irvin said.

The couple renovated the buildings on the site and set out to farm the land. After first thinking they would raise free-range chickens, they moved on to wine. Because muscadines are the only winemaking grapes that thrive in South Carolina, that's what they planted. In March 2001, 2,700 vines on 7 1/2 miles of trellises went in the ground.

So what if Irvin had no idea how to make wine; he knew he enjoyed drinking it. Plus, he had a chemistry degree from Vanderbilt and was willing to learn "one day at a time."

Jim and Ann Irvin started Irvin-House Vineyards.

Fast forward a few years, when Newitt, 43, picked up the Irvin-House account. The two became good friends.

Newitt started sharing his idea about making vodka.

The two were determined to give it a try, and Firefly Distillery was born.

Wadmalaw Island seemed the perfect place to blend two Southern staples: sweet tea and muscadines. Newitt figured they could take sugar from his home state of Louisiana and South Carolina tea and make a vodka that Southerners are nearly genetically programmed to love.

With Irvin's understanding of the process used to make wine, distilling spirits was a natural next step. In April, Firefly Sweet Tea Flavored Vodka was released.

Newitt estimated they'd be in six or seven Southern states the first year and bottle about 20,000 cases of sweet tea vodka.

By August, Firefly was the hottest vodka in South Carolina. It moved into Tennessee and North Carolina that month and was sold in a dozen states by the end of September.

Its producers were running out of money.

The business was growing too fast to keep up. Newitt and Irvin were bottling 300 cases a day by hand at the Wadmalaw location.

By Sept. 1, they were in a serious money crunch. They knew there were competitors out there, and they knew they wanted to be the first to market sweet tea vodka across the country.

They found a distillery to partner with Firefly and started producing the recipe for sweet tea vodka to sell around the country.

The vodka is sold in 30 states now and is expected to be in all 50 by March 1.

Although the company has other brands, including Firefly Muscadine Flavored Vodka, the sweet tea vodka is its biggest seller.

Are Newitt and Irvin surprised at the success? Maybe a little. But they believed from the start they had a winner on their hands.

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