This piece is a part of our Q+A series. Know someone we should interview? Nominate them by emailing us — [email protected].
Scott Newitt — co-founder of Charleston-based Firefly Distillery — is one of two masterminds behind the world’s first hand-crafted Sweet Tea Vodka. As an LSU grad with a background in banking + music, you may be wondering how he got to where he is today.
We sat down with Scott to ask 11 questions about all things Firefly. Keep reading to find out how Sweet Tea Vodka was born, the core values of the brand, and what you can expect at Charleston’s oldest working distillery.
What was your first product + how did it influence Sweet Tea Vodka?
I started working for Gallo Winery + then left to work for a customer who was a distributor. That’s how my partner Jim and I met. I mean, I played music all through college and tried that, but I needed to eat.
The first vodka we made was Muscadine Wine Vodka. I got into Las Vegas, New York, Florida, and Georgia. It was before its time I think. You do well now because everybody’s entered unique drink flavors, but at the time it didn’t do well. So we said, “let’s try something else.” And that’s when we got the idea for tea. I left the distributor in 2008 when Jim and I introduced Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka.
How did Firefly’s name come about?
My wife’s family is from Savannah and they’ve got tons of old books. When I was thinking this up, I went through all these 100-year-old books and wrote down names. I’ve always been in love with fireflies, and the two most frequent names I found in those books were magnolias and fireflies.
What are Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka’s core values?
Southern, genuine, friendly, and easy. That’s what I want visitors to walk away with — and then hopefully they’ll come back.
What was the process of moving locations + expanding like?
Our Wadmalaw location opened in 2000 as a winery: Irvin House Vineyards. They made four or five wines. And then we got the laws changed in ‘07. When Governor Sanford signed it, you could open up a distillery prior, but you had to pay the state $50,000 every two years. We got it lowered to $1,500. And in ‘09, we got another law changed through our own lobbying that let us open up our tasting room so that we could sell directly to the consumer.
What was your vision for Firefly?
The vision was hospitality. And we wanted to build something that felt like a county park. We had music at our old venue on Wadmalaw every Saturday, so we kind of brought that here. We maxed out on guest count — we could never get over 35,000 visitors per year, which is a great number, but I wanted to see 200,000 people.
This land popped up in 2015, and the city owned it. When we picked it, we didn’t know that Park Circle was going to become the Brooklyn of Charleston. But by 2015, we knew that.
What’s the goal of the distillery?
Family business, lots of music, lots of fun, bringing locals, and attracting tourists. We’ve always been about fun. I’ve always said, although we’re making high-end bourbons now, I’m not trying to be Dom Pérignon — this is fun. I want to go sit outside, put it on ice, or put some lemonade in it, and drink it on the porch. Some people want to be doctors; I always knew I wanted to have my own business. There was a real attraction to me to make a family business.
It’s also always been about music. We have a recording studio upstairs and we get a lot of single artists that come in through the radio stations or promoters wanting to do a listening session before a big show. We had three last year — one was country artist Jimmy Allen. I love that, you know, it’s inviting. That’s what we’re always going to be.
Tell me about Firefly’s milestones.
A big milestone was when we got our product to all 50 states at the end of ‘09. Getting our moonshine into England around 2015. And opening this place. I mean, we had plans for this place in 2016. We bought it + hired architects and went through several different variations before we landed on what you see today.
What’s your go-to product?
That goes with the seasons. During spring, I like our flavored vodka — I really like mint tea. Summer is probably going to be our lemonade vodka. That’s our number one selling item here. In the fall or winter, it’s more Apple Pie Moonshine, our bourbons, and whiskeys. My favorite right now is our blended whiskey Bend and Steal.
Who are local leaders you’re inspired by?
Kenny Seamon of SeamonWhiteside. He was a fantastic individual.
And Jody Tamsburg. I’ve been on the board of Windwood Farms for about 10 years, and he’s the one who started it. He donated 150 acres, the houses, and everything to help these kids. Windwood Farms gives these kids a second chance to grow up on this farm. It’s special to me because I was adopted.
Describe your perfect day in Charleston.
Out on Bulls Bay in a boat. Fishing for redfish and listening to really good music.
What do you think is something that every Charlestonian should know about?
Well, Firefly. They don’t all know about it.