Food & Drink

Vodka with a twist

Sweet tea-flavored vodka? It's hard to believe no one thought of it sooner.

Two S.C. entrepreneurs came up with it, and now they're racing to keep up with demand.

“I'm having a blast,” admits Scott Newitt, one of the two partners behind Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka.

Since they introduced it in April, it's not only become the best-selling flavored vodka in South Carolina, it's found fans in Colorado, Nevada and New York, and racked up raves in the blogosphere from as far as San Francisco.

It's scheduled to arrive in ABC stores in Charlotte this week, and it's already in a few restaurants, such as Bar Charlotte.

“Like all good, successful ideas, it's real simple,” says Newitt. “It's tea, real sugar, real vodka. And that's all there is.

“If you asked me, I thought we'd be lucky to do 16,000 cases in six states. We've done that already this summer just in South Carolina.”

Firefly is produced on Wadmalaw Island, south of Charleston, using muscadine-based vodka, tea leaves and Louisiana cane sugar.

Although they planned it to be an all-S.C. production, using tea from the only U.S. tea plantation, the Charleston Tea Plantation on Wadmalaw, they've had to add tea from other countries and distillery space in Florida to keep up with demand.

The vodka idea started when Newitt, a liquor and wine distributor who used to live in Charlotte, met Jim Irvin, who had a muscadine winery on Wadmalaw. Casting around for something to do with Irvin's fast-growing muscadines, they came up with vodka.

No, vodka doesn't have to be made from potatoes. In fact, most vodka is made from grains. But it can be distilled from fruit, too.

Irvin and Newitt first had to persuade the S.C. Legislature to lower the license fee to produce liquor from $50,000 to $1,200, to allow small-batch producers a chance.

Then they started making muscadine vodka using a gravity-fed distillery and filtering it through copper. Last winter, Newitt began eyeing the tea plantation 5 miles away and thinking about the popularity of sweet tea in the South.

“You put it all together, and it makes sense,” he said.

It makes fun, too. Charleston bars and restaurants have been coming up with ways to use it all summer. At McCrady's, they're making “the Charleston,” a variation of the Manhattan, with Firefly, Grand Marnier and brandied cherry syrup. At 82 Queen, they're serving a sweet tea mojito.

And everybody has come up with versions of the Arnold Palmer, half tea and half lemonade. In Charleston, some people call the Firefly version a John Daly, in honor of the bad boy of golf.

Jessica Lynn-Lato, a Charlotte food blogger, became a fan after discovering Firefly last spring on a trip to Charleston. She took a sample by the Pineville restaurant Trio and shared it with several regulars.

“They're good ol' Southern boys and they were in love – it was a big hit,” she said.

From our own experimentation – solely in the interest of our readers, of course – we vote for 2 ounces of Firefly over ice in a double rocks glass, topped with lemonade and a drizzle of mint-infused simple syrup.

It really does taste like sweet tea, but it isn't cloying. Paired with the tang of lemonade, it's a summer refresher that could give the mojito some serious competition.

For now, Newitt and Irvin are just trying to keep the shelves stocked. And they're looking ahead to plans next year to add peach- and coffee-flavored versions.

“It's been a lot of fun, and I hope to keep it fun,” says Newitt. “That's what life's about, trying to follow your passion.”