More than any region in the United States is defined by a single beverage, the South is characterized by sweet tea. The popular drink was introduced to the American colonies in the mid-1600s and was the catalyst for the Revolutionary War. Banking on the popularity of the sweet southern concoction and named after a favorite childhood southern bug, Jim Irvin and Scott Newitt founded Firefly Distillery, where they produced Sweet Tea Vodka.
I was introduced to Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka by a wild-eyed redheaded friend in college. She always kept a bottle on her countertop. One night during our weekly movie night – I will never confess what we watched – she poured a shot of sweet spirit that stung the throat all the way down.
And I’ve been a fan ever since.
In 2020, I visited the Firefly Distillery shortly after their move to a new location in North Charleston – they’d previously been “at the end of the road” on Wadmalaw Island. On an exceptionally mild summer day, co-founder Jim Irvin gave me an insightful tour of the facility and spent some time recounting the origin story.
When I left hours later, I had an exciting story to tell, a guide for visiting the distillery, and two bottles of sweet vodka for my home bar. Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about visiting the Firefly Distillery in North Charleston, South Carolina.
Brief History of Firefly Distillery
Jim Irvin has degrees in chemistry and biology from Vanderbilt University. After decades of running a branch of the family construction business, Jim and his wife Ann decided to build a winery on Wadmalaw Island. Scott Newitt is a graduate from LSU and passionate about his Southern heritage. Working as a wine distributor, he met Jim when he was hired to sell his muscadine wine.
One day in 2005, Jim and Scott – who had quickly become good friends – came up with the crazy idea to start a distillery on Wadmalaw Island. Hearkening back to their childhood of catching fireflies and stuffing them into mason jars, they named their business Firefly Distillery.
Getting started wasn’t easy. They were forced to hire distillers in Florida to produce their first product because of prohibitive South Carolina state laws. Jim and Scott lobbied their representatives to get three specific state laws changed, making it affordable and practical to operate a distillery. After succeeding, production began in the South Carolina Low Country and hasn’t stopped since.
After 10 years on Wadmalaw Island, they needed more room and a bit more visibility – Jim described their original location as “in the middle of nowhere.” They bought a piece of land in North Charleston, spent five years cleaning it up, and in 2020 opened the new location.
Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka
When Jim and Scott began distilling, they used the muscadine grapes grown on Wadmalaw Island. Technically, what they originally produced was grappa – a distilled alcoholic beverage made from grape seeds, stalks, and stems. Jim wasn’t fond of it, and Scott couldn’t sell it – they needed something different.
It just so happened that Wadmalaw Island was also the home of the Charleston Tea Plantation. The plantation was established in 1987 when William Hall – a third-generation tea taster – bought an old experimental tea farm from the Lipton Tea Company. Jim and Scott used some of the black tea leaves to create the Original Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka – the first in the world and still their most popular product.
Scott designed the label. Jim perfected the recipe. When the Original Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka hit the shelves in Charleston, it was an instant success. What could have been more perfect in the South than a handcrafted sweet tea flavored distilled spirit?
In the years since the Original Sweet Tea Vodka swept the South, the distillery has produced a few more varieties. Of course, Straight Vodka was in demand because some people just don’t like flavored drinks – my brother being one of them.
The next to come was Firefly Ruby Red Grapefruit. It tastes exactly as it sounds, but considering I don’t like grapefruit, I only half-heartedly sipped the sample and quickly moved on to the next.
Firefly Lemonade Vodka. I want to say that again for added dramatic effect – Firefly’s lemonade flavored vodka. It’s the only vodka I’ve ever gulped that puckered my lips. To make it even better, Firefly produces two varieties of lemonade vodka. My favorite was made with fresh-squeezed lemonade, which increased the puckered-lip factor tenfold – but the downside is a seriously shortened shelf life. That’s okay – that particular vodka didn’t sit on a shelf for very long.
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The next evolution of the Firefly product line was the addition of nearly a dozen flavored moonshines. White Lighting Moonshine measures 100.7 proof – the highest of any of their moonshines – and is perfect for drinking straight or mixing with anything you want.
The rest of the moonshines measure 60.3 proof – perfect for an afternoon of sipping on the front porch. The Apple Pie Moonshine was my favorite because apples are my favorite, but I have to admit that the Blackberry Moonshine and Caramel Moonshine were exceptional. Actually, they were all exceptional – I can’t lie.
Firefly Distillery Tours
The best way to appreciate a distillery is to drink their product – that came later. But the best way to learn about a distillery is to take a guided tour. After meeting co-founder Jim Irvin in the beautiful North Charleston building’s lobby, he took me on a guided tour.
We’d only taken a few steps before the stories began flowing. Standing in front of a battered metal tank, Jim explained that was their first still. A 55-gallon tank handcrafted still used an open propane flame to produce their earliest products in South Carolina.
Moving into the main production facility, Jim pointed upward at massive holding tanks standing 30’ high. Walking over to a shiny stainless steel tank, he explained, “This is what we use now. 300 gallons.” It was bigger than the original. And a little prettier.
All the Firefly Distillery products are made at this location. Distilled, stored, bottled, labeled, and shipped from a giant building. It was a smooth operation – and considering the number of pallets loaded with product ready to ship, I would say it was a successful business.
Tours are available to all visitors from 12 p.m. until 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The cost is $10 per person and includes a flight of 6 spirits at the end of the tour. That is where I found myself after Jim and I parted ways.
It only made sense that an otherwise gorgeous campus would feature a rustic tasting room. Reclaimed wood from barrels hung on the walls surrounding a copper countertop. Daylight flooded through the large glass wall and mixed with the yellowish Edison bulbs hanging from pendants.
Adam Graudin – the tastemaker on duty – sauntered over, introduced the entire lineup of Firefly Distillery products, and asked a critical question, “Which six do you want to try?” In my mind, I screamed, “All of them!” But of course, that wasn’t an option. Carefully considering my options, I picked six products to sample – and the fun began.
The Firefly Lemonade Vodka was first. Then came the Grapefruit Vodka and an eagerness to move on. But then I was surprised with what Adam described as “the Sweet Tea Vodka’s little brother.” A sample of Sweat Tea Whiskey was poured in a glass branded with their logo – and ten seconds later, I had found my next favorite drink to take on the road with me. It didn’t have the powerful bite typical of a good whiskey, instead softened by the sweet tea flavor. It was smooth, delicious, and alcoholic – leaving me wondering if anything could have been better.
Six samples. A souvenir glass to take home. A bottle of Firefly Lemonade Vodka and Firefly Sweet Tea Whiskey. My time at the Firefly Distillery had been nothing short of exciting, and I would be able to enjoy it for months to come. Weeks to come. The alcohol lasted for three weeks.
Live Music and Food Trucks
Fran Collins was operating the counter in the gift shop when I exited the tasting room. Just as I turned to leave, she added, “Come back for our live music and food trucks on Saturday nights!” Well, how about that? Firefly Distillery was more than just a production facility and place to sample sweet tea vodka – they were an entertainment venue as well.
As soon as I turned down the gravel road, I realized these people knew how to party. I could hear the live music in the outdoor venue. The sun was getting low on the horizon. People were laughing. This was going to be fun!
One of the reasons Jim and Scott wanted to move Firefly Distillery away from Wadmalaw Island was a need for more room to grow. A giant field in front of the distillery’s entrance dotted with picnic tables and chairs was exactly what they had in mind. A band performed from a stage while food trucks served savory treats nearby.
Live music and food trucks happen most Saturday nights – although it’s a bit of a seasonal affair. The event takes place from noon until 4 p.m., making the summer months the worst time to come out. Instead, try attending the event in spring or autumn to take advantage of that perfect Low Country weather.
Check out their schedule of events to see what’s coming up soon.
Where to Stay in North Charleston
Nobody plans a vacation by eagerly booking rooms in North Charleston. I can completely understand if you’d rather get a swanky room on the Charleston Peninsula or maybe something closer to the beach. But if you want to stay in North Charleston – it’s a great place you need to explore – here are a few options I recommend for overnight lodging.
Embassy Suites is as good as you’ll get in North Charleston – and it’s plenty. With an immaculate indoor swimming pool, on-site restaurant, and fantastic included breakfast, it’s all you need for a comfortable night. Choose from bedrooms with one or two beds, but their most common room is a suite with either king or queen bed and a sleeper sofa – perfect for traveling families.
Hyatt Place is another great option. An indoor swimming pool will give you a place to relax after a long day exploring North Charleston. Choose from rooms with one or two beds or go with a suite with a single bed and sleeper sofa.
My top recommendation in North Charleston is the Hampton Inn & Suites. The outdoor swimming pool is a great place to relax, and the fantastic free hot breakfast in the morning will get you started off right. Choose from rooms with one or two beds – most with a mini-fridge – or go with the King Suite with a bed and sleeper sofa.