On this special episode of “Next Round,” host Adam Teeter chats with Jim Irvin and Scott Newitt, co-founders of Firefly Distillery in Charleston, S.C. Listeners will get a behind-the-scenes look into how the famous Firefly Distillery began, and how Firefly’s Sweet Tea Vodka became a worldwide hit.
To create Firefly’s famed sweet tea vodka, Irvin used his winemaking expertise to marry the flavor profiles of Muscadine and sweet tea, while Newitt’s background in marketing helped him take Firefly Distillery to new heights. This successful partnership has now produced other distilled spirits such as moonshine, rum, and bourbon.
Tune in to learn more about the phenomenon that is Firefly Distillery.
Or Check out the Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter, and this is a “VinePair Podcast” “Next Round” conversation. We’re bringing you these conversations in between the regular podcast episodes in order to give a better picture of what’s going on in the alcohol beverage industry right now. Today, I’m really excited because we’re going to do something a little bit different with this episode, where I do an oral history of a very iconic brand that many of you are probably very familiar with. We’re going to get into what that brand is in just a second. Right now, I’m going to introduce my two guests, Jim Irvin and Scott Newitt, the founders of Firefly Distillery based in Charleston, S.C. Guys, thank you so much for being with me.
Jim Irvin: A pleasure.
Scott Newitt: Yeah, thanks for having us.
A: Of course, so obviously, some listeners may now have an inkling of what the brand is. The brand is Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka, which was just a massive phenomenon when you guys released it. I can’t wait to talk about the story behind that. Before we get into the story, talk about how you founded the distillery in the first place.
S: Well, I spent 20 years in the wine business prior to this distributor or distillery life. I worked for Gallo for 11 years and then ran a wholesaler for nine. Jim started a winery as a retirement project, a Muscadine winery here in Charleston. It’s the only grape that’ll grow here, and he needed a distributor. We became friends, and I became his distributor. I had bought a still years back, and it was in the distributor’s warehouse and showed it to him. He said, “Why don’t we use my wine?” Then, we made our first distilled spirit, which was Firefly Muscadine Wine-Flavored Vodka.
A: Interesting. When you first started it, what was your business plan? Did you have a business plan? Was this just for fun? Were you creating a regional company? When you were thinking about Firefly Distillery, what were your goals for the business?
S: Jim was already retiring from a construction career, but my goal was to work for myself and provide for my family. Having been in the wine business that long, I got to go spend weekends and weeks with people that owned wineries all over the world. I just loved their way of life. Their families are involved, and our families are involved in this business. Also, having worked in the corporate world for a long time, I really looked at it as an appealing life.
A: First of all, why vodka? And why was it just Muscadine flavor? Was it because Jim had the Muscadine winery?
J: Yeah, we had the Muscadine wine. I thought the best thing was to make a Martini with the Muscadine wine and then take the wine out after it satisfied the vodka. That’s why we had to call it Muscadine wine-flavored, because we used Muscadine wine to make the Martini. Then, we used charcoal to take the Martini part out so it was back to vodka again.
S: We used it to soften the vodka. It’s a really good vodka, and it doesn’t really taste like wine. It was an interesting way to flavor vodka.
A: What was the reception when you first released it?
S: Well, I got us into four states, and it was lukewarm. Nobody understood Muscadine. It was the first of its flavor, and back then the only flavors you really had were lemon, lime, and your traditional flavors. There weren’t a whole lot of flavors.
A: Then, take me from there to the idea of sweet tea vodka. Also, can you place us at what time this was? What year is this? How did you go from Muscadine to having this idea that you’re going to make a sweet tea-flavored vodka?
S: Jim and I both had full-time jobs, and we were doing this on the side. I was still in the wine business. I would go out to California for business reviews three or four times a year. However, every year I would always have one trip where I met with all my smaller wineries that were really good friends and family-type people. I would stay at the Saintsbury Brown Ranch guesthouse. We would all just cook together, drink wine, and talk about business. A friend of mine who owns Charbay Distillery in California came. His name is Marco, and he’s a 13th-generation Cognac maker. He showed up with a bottle of green tea vodka. I got on my flip phone in 2006 and called Jim. This was after telling Marco, “I think I’m going to copy your idea, but I’m gonna make a sweet tea.” He said, “What’s that?” I called Jim, and he was silent. He wasn’t really sure it was a good idea. I said, “Jim, look, you’re friends with the guys that are in the Charleston tea plantation. Let’s use their tea, and let’s make a sweet tea vodka.” After prodding him for about a month, he decided to do it.
A: So what was the process? Obviously, Jim agreed.
S: Do you know why he agreed?
A: Why did he agree?
S: He wanted me to pay attention to his wine because I was selling it at the stores.
J: He had me in every grocery store chain in South Carolina.
A: You said, “OK, fine, as long as you deal with my wine, I’ll let you make a sweet tea vodka.”
S: I’ll humor you.
A: This is still the time where South Carolina is all minis, right?
S: Yeah, so that’s when it switched from minis in 2006.
A: Oh, interesting. OK, so you basically go back to Charleston, and you’ve convinced Jim. What was the process? How did you start working with the sweet tea manufacturer? What did the distiller think when you were like, “Hey, we’re going to do this?”
S: Jim went to Vanderbilt, and he has a degree in biology. He is a winemaker, self-taught, and he makes pretty good wine. Muscadine is a tough thing to tame, but he makes good wine out of it. You can correct me if I’m wrong, Jim. I grew up in Louisiana. I like to say that Jim made a sweet tea roux. He boiled it down to however thick it was with sugar and found out where he could add vodka to it so that it would marry well.
A: Jim, were you in the kitchen doing this? Were you at the distillery? Talk to me about when you first created the prototype.
J: We were at the winery. We had a federal and state distilling license at that point in November of 2007. The hardest thing was to try to figure out how to concentrate the tea. When you mix the vodka and sugar, you don’t lose the tea flavor. You couldn’t do it by boiling it down because then it would caramelize, and it was quite a trick to get it concentrated. Once we figured that out, all our copycats, none of them used real tea. We’re the only ones that used real tea for a good while.
A: Interesting. Well, Jim, we’re not to the copycats yet, but we’ll get there. So you figure out the concentration, and you make it. Did you decide to do it at scale, or did you give it to a few people first? What was the initial reception?
J: We had a tasting room for our winery. We were able to let people taste it. They came out to the winery.
S: It blew their minds.
A: So people weren’t like, “What’s this?” Did they automatically just take it and say, “Let’s try it?”
S: In fact, our distributor was a family-run distributor. Now it’s RNDC, but the whole family went to Ole Miss. Their father was a professor at Ole Miss. There are eight kids. Peter Fawcett tasted it and flipped. I don’t know if you can get much more southern than Oxford, Miss., right?
A: No, you can’t.
S: He flipped and said, “We gotta get this out there.”
A: So you guys obviously figured out how to make a concentrate at the winery, but then brought it to a point where it can scale to a large level. What did that look like? Did you always know it was going to be named Firefly Sweet Vodka? I’d love to understand how you created the brand behind it, too.
S: Yeah, so I was a marketer for Gallo. When we were coming up with the Muscadine around 2004, you had a slew of critter brands out there, like Yellowtail. I thought it would be clever because nobody in the spirits business was doing that. There wasn’t a critter brand. There were all these old, stodgy, shield labels. I thought a critter label would be great to do. My wife’s from Savannah, Ga., and her family’s been there 300 years. They have a room full of coffee table books about the South. I just went through one of those at Christmas and wrote down names I liked. The two most frequent names in those books were magnolias and fireflies. That’s where the name Firefly came from.
A: OK, so then you basically create this sweet tea vodka and you start manufacturing it. What was the rollout plan like? Scott, with your marketing background, did you think this was going to purely be a Southern product? Obviously, now it’s very national, but what was your plan when you created it? Who was the market?
S: My idea for the market was anybody that visits Charleston, from New York, down the coast all the way to Texas. That’s really where we get our visitors. And Ohio. That’s where I thought we would end up, but it turned out to be a lot bigger than that.
A: When it started taking off, how quickly did that happen? You’re putting it on the shelf and then all of a sudden it starts exploding. Is this still 2006?
S: This is 2008. We introduced Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka to South Carolina on April 15, 2008. Tax Day. Because Jim and I are great fans of paying taxes. It blew up. We had a relationship with a large distillery in Florida at the time. We had to make our first vodka in Florida because, in order to get a license in South Carolina in 2006, it was $50,000 every two years.
S: Lobbyists didn’t want that happening in South Carolina. We had a relationship with a large place. So when it blew up, we originally went to them and said, “Hey, we need you to help us make this,” which they did with our formula. We went from zero to 8,000 cases in August.
A: How did it blow up? Was it word of mouth? Did it also go through on-premise? Was this all just in the stores? Have you ever been able to figure out what caused it to explode so quickly?
S: Well, I think the stars aligned right, Jim?
J: Yes, stars aligned. McDonald’s started advertising sweet tea at the same time as Bojangles. God was right there and led us everywhere. It was crazy.
S: It was a brand-new flavor with a large point of difference. The hottest flavors then were lime and lemon. After sweet tea came out, everything went bonkers on flavor. Anything from Froot Loop-flavored vodka. It went crazy.
A: Wow. OK, so you start going national. After doing 8,000 cases by August — you released in April — how soon after did the fast followers come on?
S: I would say January 2009, we had no competition for eight months.
A: OK, eight months. People obviously started figuring out that this thing was a phenomenon. What changed for you guys as it grew? How did that growth lead to other things?
J: 2008 is when the market collapsed.
J: We had all these receivables, but no cash. We couldn’t borrow money. We couldn’t figure out how to buy bottles, all that sort of stuff.
S: We couldn’t factor our invoices for 25 percent, how about that?
A: That’s amazing. As this thing is growing, are you thinking, “Let’s just pump this like crazy?” Are you thinking about releasing new flavors?
S: Yes, so as it is exploding and the copycats are coming out, the natural response is, if you’re thinking purely retail, “How do I get a billboard on the shelf if I’ve just got Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka?” All these copycats are existing brands. We came out with Mint Tea, Lemon Tea, and Raspberry Tea. Three sizes so that we could create a billboard and fight the good fight.
A: Who is your drinker at this point? Did you have an idea nationally? Was it former Southerners?
J: It is genetically required that Southerners drink sweet tea.
A: I’m from the South originally, but I’m in New York now. I remember when it came out, I saw it all over New York. Obviously, it was more than the South. Could you explain why that was? I remember the big McDonald’s billboards in New York City advertising sweet tea. I thought to myself, “We’ll see”. It was interesting to see that happening. That being said, where was your market? Was it truly national? Was it mostly focused in the South at that time? And who was drinking it?
S: It was everybody because the distributors talk, right? We got into eight states. Whenever a distributor is not competing with another, they share the information. They all just said, “We got to have a truckload. I got to have this.” We knew we needed to get to all 50 states because if you’re not first, you’re not first. To do that, we had a lot of people approach us. We had lots of people from New York that wanted to give us money, right? And we had a lot of venture capitalists. We ended up going into a joint venture, which is basically an agreement to share our trademark with the Buffalo Trace Bourbon Distillery.
A: Oh, interesting. Does that still exist?
S: It does. They own a small percentage of the trademark, but their sales force got us to all 50 states a lot faster than I could. They cleaned up our invoices. It’s a great partnership. They got sweat equity, but we also make Firefly there.
A: Interesting. Now, this is only for the people on the podcast. We’re going to get real industry-heavy. With that deal, are you required to read Mark Brown’s morning emails?
S: I do anyway. I’ve been an avid reader since 2008.
A: Very cool. How were people consuming it? And how has that evolved over the brand’s 13 year history? Were people drinking it straight? Were they mixing it? How are you encouraging people to consume? The way I think about it is, “OK, so it’s sweet tea-flavored, so am I drinking it straight because it tastes like sweet tea?” But that’s a lot of vodka. What were your recommended serves?
S: Well, our recommendation was mixing it with ice tea, which is not sweetened. Lemonade, obviously, to make an Arnold Palmer or John Daly, or with water. Our market was from 21-year-olds to 80-year-olds, because they all drink sweet tea. I’ll tell you a funny story that is kind of worrisome, but I’m on a college campus with the owner of the distributor. We walk to go have lunch and there are three sorority girls at the bar, and they buy a bottle of Firefly and pour it into a pitcher full of ice.
A: Oh, no.
S: That’s not the way to do it, but some people just drink it over the ice.
A: Wow, so you guys are in the South, you both are from SEC football schools. Was that a huge push for you, too? Did you push it into tailgating? Was that a strategy?
S: It was in the beginning. We had an intern program with college of-age students for the first year, which was great.
A: Wow, so how has the brand evolved since it first came into existence? Where has the business gone from there?
S: Yeah, so the sweet tea evolved into other flavors of tea. We also have a lemonade vodka that we’ve been making for a long time that we just sell in the distillery tasting room. It’s super fresh, it’s got a shelf life. It’s the wine drinker’s vodka because it’s got lots of sour and acid.
A: I’m curious. Think about current trends, right? If you’re looking at this massive lemonade push we’re seeing with all these hard seltzer brands, do you think that could pop in the near future in the same way that sweet tea did?
S: I do, because it’s the No. 1 seller, and it has been. It outsells our sweet tea vodka in the tasting room.
S: It’s a really good flavor profile for lemonade. I like tart. We also make a ruby red that’s in the Firefly line. We also have a classic vodka that does pretty well here in South Carolina. Then we came out with Moonshines in 2013 because Jim has always made whiskey.
S: Yeah, we actually had a sweet tea bourbon in 2009.
J: Bourbon got too expensive.
A: It has gotten very expensive. So you started making Moonshine, interesting.
S: Yeah, we make six flavors of Moonshine. We sell Moonshine all over the U.S. and we sell quite a bit in England. Then, we sell sweet tea vodka all over the U.S. and in the Caribbean.
A: You guys are also making rum, right?
S: We do, we make a little rum called Sea Island Rum, and we got the name from Wadmalaw Island where we originated. It is a Sea Island. There are about 100 islands between the Outer Banks of North Carolina and Jacksonville called the Sea Islands.
A: Oh, cool. Then, with all this growth, obviously, you were talking before we started recording that you moved the distillery to Charleston, correct?
S: Yes, we moved right in the middle of town. It’s actually on the North Charleston border. We’re about an eight-minute ride to Market Street.
A: OK, so at the tasting room?
S: The tasting rooms are at our new site. It’s all here, because South Carolina laws say you can only taste and sell to the consumer where you produce it.
A: OK, so are you producing everything now there, or are you still doing some production at Buffalo Trace?
S: We do all the Moonshine here, and we supply South Carolina with our vodkas here. All the rums are done here, the bourbons are all done here, and the whiskeys as well. Where we need help from Buffalo Trace is the sweet tea vodka.
A: With the growth, I’m assuming you’ve had people approach you to sell. What is your vision for Firefly in the future? Have you thought about being acquired? Do you want to own it forever? Scott, as you talked about earlier in our conversation with these families that have owned wineries for generations, is that what you guys would like to see for Firefly? Pass it down to your kids and they keep running the business? What’s the long-term vision?
S: That is my vision. I’ve got three kids that work for us while they’re not in college. Our master distiller is Jim’s stepson. Sure, we could sell it. Then what would you do? I’m 56, and I realized five years ago you only live once. You might as well live it right. That’s what’s important to me.
J: I’m 74, and I’m here six days a week.
S: He works the register.
A: I love it. Very cool, guys. Well, thanks so much for taking the time to tell us about a brand that I think everyone is familiar with but may not know the story behind. I really appreciate it, and the next time I’m in Charleston, I’ll definitely come by.
S/J: Thank you, Adam.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, then please leave a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and in Seattle, Wash., by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tasting director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who is instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.