In 2008, Ken Irwin and Scott Newitt created what would become the vodka of the South. Combining a great southern tradition of sweet tea and the most commonly consumed spirit, vodka, Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka proved to be a winner for a small distillery on Wadmalaw Island.
I recently drove down to the Firefly Distillery, just outside of Charleston, for a tasting and some information about what's next for the company.
When Firefly's Sweet Tea Vodka started to take off, distribution became an issue. I recall my northern and western friends begging me to visit as long as a bottle of Firefly was in the bag for them. The demand was high and the supply was low, which is a great problem for any new business. In fact, Firefly still only produces approximately 110,000 cases of Sweet Tea Vodka per year at the distillery on Wadmalaw Island.
In answer to the demand and hesitation to exponentially expand the facility in South Carolina, the guys at Firefly teamed up with Buffalo Trace Distillery out of Kentucky to handle mass production and distribution of the spirit. Buffalo Trace makes crafted bourbon, but saw the genius in the Sweet Tea Vodka and agreed to take on the task of getting the southern flavor to the rest of the United States. This allowed the facility on Wadmalaw Island to focus on South Carolina and keeping the locals in good supply. The rapid success of this team, eventually, led to another great Southern mash-up spirit.
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Sweet Tea Bourbon is a tasty offspring between the Firefly and Buffalo Trace team. No doubt playing on the success of the vodka version and hoping for notoriety among the Southern states. Starting with the classic Buffalo Trace Bourbon and then infusing the local tea and sugar cane flavors makes this one of the most distinctive bourbons I've tasted.
If you aren't a bourbon fan, don't fret, this has mild flavor that is slightly sweet. If you are a bourbon fanatic, this one drinks well on the rocks. It balances the classic bourbon flavors with the well known sweet tea sensation. A mint julep made from the sweet tea bourbon has "I'm southern" written all over it. It is possibly one of the best juleps I've had.
Don't just take my word for its quality, Firefly Sweet Tea Bourbon won a gold Medal at a San Francisco spirits competition. It was the first competition for the bourbon, so you can imagine the excitement around the distillery after the news arrived back home. Likewise, Firefly won gold medals for its Sweet Tea Vodka and regular vodka at the same event. I'd say this distillery has solidified itself as a force to be reckoned with when it comes to putting out top-notch crafted spirits.
While bourbon is a southern tradition that blends well with its non-alcoholic cousin, sweet tea, Firefly is also embarking upon another venture that taps into an age-old tradition from our island neighbors.
The Caribbean islands have been producing rum from island harvested sugar cane for many, many years. Given our local crop of sugar cane, the next major project on tap for Firefly is rum production.
Under a working label at the time, but soon to be named Dragonfly Rum, Irwin and Newitt are producing small batches that rival some of the great island rums I've tasted. They want to keep the idea of local products that are made with care - as opposed to mass production - for this new venture.
The crafted gold rum is smooth and elegant. My sample was served room temperature without a mixer, which is the way I prefer to taste, and held great nuances of classic rum from the islands. We would expect nothing less from this Palmetto State powerhouse.
So what will be the next big thing for Firefly?
Java-infused Dragonfly Rum was born. It is innovative, bold and tastes amazing. It's the perfect after dinner drink. A rum base gives hints of sugar cane that blend well with the all natural coffee flavors. A little on the rocks and you can forego your espresso for a more adult option. It's another amazing turn out for the Firefly team.
Beyond the bourbon and rum vision that is under way, Firefly is also making Southern Lemonade. Using the signature vodka, which is distilled six times, and infusing it with real lemon. It drinks very well chilled and reminds me of a more adult afternoon on my grandmother's porch. Reminiscent of lemoncello, it makes a great after dinner drink or a midday refresher.
I know I'm not alone in being proud of our home state distillery for its success in Sweet Tea vodka, but I think it has only just begun. Entering the bourbon, rum and lemonade categories are proving to establish our state as one of the finest, innovative distilleries in America. Firefly is racking up the awards to prove it and showing no signs of slowing down. Innovation and expanding the southern tradition is what the Firefly folks are all about and we sure are glad that they are doing what they do.
Kevin Hoover is a local foodie engaged in the endless pursuit of the perfect cocktail and dining experience. Check out his blog at lushlifeonline.com.