Sweet tea has always been the table wine of the South, but it's quickly becoming the spirit of the South with the release of Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka, an infusion that is proving irresistible to local palates.
"Finally we figured out that we're in the South. What's the matter with having a sweet-tea flavored vodka?" says distiller Jim Irvin, who also runs South Carolina's only winery, Irvin~˜House Vineyard, on Wadmalaw Island. Irvin started making wine from muscadine grapes back in 2003. A couple years later, he partnered with former wine distributor Scott Newitt to create a new spirit — muscadine-flavored vodka dubbed Firefly.
The original Firefly is tasty and provides a great base for cocktails, but a few months ago, they released their new sweet-tea infused vodka, a very dangerous potion. It looks as real as anything your Granny would make, and it sure does taste like it too. In fact, add some ice and you could pound back a mason jar of this stuff before your brain gets fuzzy and you realize that you're not drinking ordinary iced tea.
Just like Granny used to make. Only not at all.
Firefly Sweet Tea hit the market in April and is already everywhere, becoming a popular shooter at the local bars and a big seller in the liquor stores. According to their distributors, within three weeks it became the best-selling flavored vodka in South Carolina.
It's created by adding a tea concentrate, sweetened with cane sugar, to the alcohol. Firefly is part of a much larger infusion trend; brands from Van Gogh to Absolut have created all kinds of flavors, from light and rich to tart and sweet.
Firefly initially planned to enter the huge market with a coffee flavor to compete with Van Gogh's version. But that project was shelved temporarily last November, when Guerrilla Cuisine hosted its first underground dinner in an old barn at the Irvin~˜House Vineyard. Richard Patrick, then a distiller at Firefly, wanted to do something different for the foodie crowd and made them a sweet tea cocktail with the original muscadine-flavored Firefly.
"It all disappeared so quickly," remembers Irvin. "A big five-gallon jug of it."
While the idea of alcohol made palatable with the addition of sweet tea may send you running to the closest bar or liquor store, infusing vodka is a very simple process, with a number of recipes available on the internet for the do-it-yourselfers out there.
Every aspect of Firefly Sweet Tea's production, from distilling the vodka and brewing the tea, to bottling, labeling and packaging, is done at the Irvin~House Vineyard, in buildings that used to maintain a carriage company.
Firefly uses only all-natural ingredients, including tea from the Charleston Tea Plantation only a few miles down the road from the vineyard.
"Our product is 100 percent pure," says Irvin. "Everything in it: pure tea, pure sweetener, pure vodka, pure water."
The demand for the product has been overwhelming. Irvin says local bars tell him they've never bought liquor in the amount they have from Firefly. In an hour and a half, one rep sold 90 cases to four stores, and another store bought 800 cases.
Currently, the sweet tea vodka is being distributed in Nevada and Colorado and will be in Georgia and New York in August, and they want to eventually be in every Southern state by the end of the year. Another goal is to support small businesses, who backed the company along the way.
The Holy City is certainly stocked. At McCrady's, bartender Ben Hill says that Firefly Sweet Tea itself isn't meant to be infused with other flavors, but drank on its own, with water. For mixed drinks, he uses Firefly Muscadine because it is a harsher vodka than its higher-shelf peers and can take on outside flavors better.
Hill's concoctions start out as "a bunch of terrible ideas late at night," a number of which are currently available on McCrady's cocktail menu. While some richer infusions combine Firefly with chocolate or peanut butter, his cucumber-infused vodka is a drink for the weak of taste buds, having only the slightest sting of alcohol and tasting more like a refreshing glass of water.
Still, Hill warns that the popularity of these drinks may be fading like an IHOP-treated hangover.
"Everything goes in fads and phases," he said. "Infusions were last year's."
McCrady's is now moving toward '20s and '30s inspired spirits like bitters and vermouths. But Firefly isn't going to stop at sweet tea. Irvin says they initially came up with over 200 ideas for vodkas and have boiled those down to 20. They are perfecting a straight vodka (for mid-August), a southern coffee (for September), and even a Sea Island spiced rum (for October).
But it's going to be hard to come up with any idea as appropriate for southerners as sweet tea. It's in our genes. And now, in our livers, too.