At this S.C. distillery, creativity seems to be the main ingredient
When I first heard about Sweet Tea Vodka, I knew that Firefly Distillery had created it just for me, combining two of my favorite drinks in one bottle. And when I looked at the Firefly website and saw the headline: “Wadmalaw Island. 2,611 people. A whole mess of gators. And one still,” I knew I had to go.
So on a recent visit to Charleston, S.C., I made arrangements to meet the two men behind this brilliant endeavor, glimpse the grapes, and sample their moonshine. They’ve got eight kinds and they sell it in Mason Jars, just like you might see on the TV series “Justified.” The moonshine includes various fruit flavors — I’m slowly sipping the peach as I write — as well as Caramel and White Lightning.
The moonshiners are Jim Irvin and Scott Newitt. As they tell it, Irvin is responsible for what goes inside the bottle, while Newitt is responsible for what goes on outside the bottle. Irvin, a chemistry and biology graduate of Vanderbilt, spent 40 years in the construction business before he “retired” 20 years ago and bought a 50-acre farm on rural Wadmalaw Island not far from Charleston. He and his wife were going to start a chicken farm, but there was too much red tape.
“So I planted vines,” says Irvin, who is 72. “The only grape that thrives in the heat here is muscadine.”
Then Irvin met Newitt, who had worked in sales and marketing for Gallo. They teamed up to form Firefly Spirits. “I make it and he sells it,” says Irvin.
But first, they had to lobby to get a bill passed in the state Legislature that would make it legal to distill and sell spirits in South Carolina. Once that was settled, they had to come up with a still. They couldn’t afford to buy one, so they built their own: a 55-gallon stainless steel tank on top of a propane burner.
Their first product was muscadine vodka. In 2008, they hit upon a distinctly southern flavor: sweet tea vodka, which quickly became their flagship product. (Their motto: “This ain’t your grandma’s sweet tea!”)
Much of the tea they use comes from the Charleston Tea Plantation, also located on Wadmalaw Island. Their products now include six types of vodka, including mint tea, which in 2009 took a double gold award from the World Spirits Competition in San Francisco. The following year, Firefly vodka won Best in Class in the International Wine & Spirit Competition.
The company has expanded to produce several kinds of rum, whiskey, liqueurs, and of course, the moonshine. A trip to the distillery is a hoot, with high-class hooch. The tasting room is ringed with shelves bearing the products, and a bar offers sips.
Mitchell Simpson is the tasting room manager, and has seen it all, including a busload of Chinese tourists. “They were not the biggest drinkers, but when they tucked into the White Lightning, everyone got a little more relaxed,” he says. (Sweet Tea Vodka remains Newitt’s fave, while Irvin loves Apple Pie Moonshine.)
My favorites were the Sweet Tea Vodka and the Peach Moonshine. And then there’s the Chocolate Pecan Pie Liqueur — when we got home, we took the partners’ advice and poured some of it over vanilla ice cream. Better than hot fudge. Firefly also makes a Coconut Cake Liqueur and a Banana Puddin’ Liqueur, each a hat-tip to its southern roots.
I don’t have to worry about running out of the stash I bought down yonder. Firefly now sells Sweet Tea Vodka and select moonshines in all 50 states — including dozens of liquor stores in Massachusetts — as well as in the Caribbean. Irvin and his wife, Ann, spend some time at their Firefly Sunset Resort in the Bahamas, while their son is now the head master distiller and general manager of the distillery.
A victim of its own success, Firefly Distillery has run out of room on Wadmalaw Island, and in January 2020 plans to move to North Charleston. Irvin is philosophical about his and Newitt’s endeavor: “We didn’t know we couldn’t do it.”
So they just went ahead and did it, and I’m glad they did.
A few miles from the distillery, I found another South Carolina original: Bertha Booker, who makes Botany Bay Sea Salt. Booker worked for an international shipping firm in Charleston, and lost her job in 2010 when the company relocated to Shanghai.
One evening, while on a kayaking trip, Booker realized she’d forgotten salt for the hamburger she’d brought along. “So I boiled a little creek water and made some,” she says. She loved it. “It was briny with a hint of sweetness, like a Lowcountry oyster. It tasted nothing like today’s processed salts.” So she decided to go into the business.
It took her nearly two years of research to convince state agricultural officials that culinary salt could safely be made. “Salt is the oldest product in the world, and nobody had tried to make it in South Carolina since the Civil War,” Booker says.
It’s a very exacting process that can take weeks. Booker is a one-person operation. She harvests seawater, lets it settle in thin layers, filters it and feeds it into solar salt ponds in greenhouses where it evaporates in the Carolina sun. From 1,000 pounds of water, she gets 25 pounds of salt.
Booker makes fine flake salt, and regular and smoked salt — using live oak, hickory, and pecan wood — that come in grinders. She sells them at farmers’ markets from $8 to $16. This spring was the best season she’s had: “The higher the heat and the lower the humidity, the better things go.”
Booker’s salt is unrefined and, she says, contains natural minerals: “When you taste my salt, it kind of tastes like the ocean.”