To find Charleston's Firefly Distillery, one has to drive a narrow, two-lane road overhung by oaks and pines, deep in the wilds of Wadmalaw Island - a journey that can feel like going back in time hundreds of years.
To sample the original South Carolina distillery's wares, though, is as simple today as visiting your favorite liquor store. Firefly's spirits - ranging from its signature Sweet Tea Vodka to its lemonade vodka, which has become a best seller, to spiced rum and six flavors of moonshine - are readily available nationally, even internationally.
Only in South Carolina will you find spirits distilled at the family-owned operation located on a 50-acre, wooded tract that includes a winery and a collection of farm animals: cows, goats, rabbits and pigs. About 30 minutes from downtown Charleston, the Firefly Distillery is a popular spot for locals and visitors to get away from the Port City bustle and unwind with nature and some "sippin'" spirits.
"Saturday is our biggest day," says Jay Macmurphy, Firefly's production manager, head distiller and son of the couple who started it all. "But it's amazing to get here at 9:30 a.m. on a Tuesday and see people waiting to get in."
For Macmurphy, that sight is food for his soul. A graduate of the University of California-Davis, where he learned about distilling, and later Trident Tech, he was building boats and catamarans in Charleston until 2008, when "the recession came and no one was building boats." Always interested in chemistry and "creating flavors," he joined the family business - the first "boutique" distillery in South Carolina.
Firefly's debut timing has been fortuitous. "Gastronomy is huge now, and people want authenticity," he says. "They want that in their spirits brand, and we can provide it. And this is a nice, comfortable place to be."
The property at 6775 Bears Bluff Road was bought by Macmurphy's mother, Ann Irvin, a Johns Island native, and his stepfather, Jim Irvin, in 2000. The family planted grape vines to start Irvin House Winery in 2003. Then in 2007 - about the time of the South Carolina law allowing microdistilleries in the state - wine distributor Scott Newitt approached the Irvins about partnering in "making a Southern sipping vodka," Macmurphy says.
Because of steep licensing fees, the spirits at first were distilled in Florida. The new law, though, enabled the family to bring the operation home. On April 15, 2008, the first bottles of Sweet Tea Vodka came off the Wadmalaw line.
Today, outside South Carolina, Firefly products are sold via Florida-based Buffalo Trace across the country and in Canada, Mexico and the rest of the Americas. Says Macmurphy with a laugh: "Even Russia buys our Firefly straight vodka."
The Wadmalaw Island facility remains small-scale and homey, with about a dozen employees total. In the tasting room, customers for $6 can purchase 1½ ounces of spirits in ¼-ounce glasses, then sit and enjoy their drinks, grab a handful of popcorn from large baskets at the bar, or purchase bottles of Firefly spirits to take home.
"We paved the way for South Carolina distilleries," Macmurphy says, identifying local distillers Striped Pig, Charleston Distilling and High Wire among those who received startup tips from Firefly's staff. Today, more than 30 microdistilleries dot the South Carolina landscape.
Business is booming, but with one bittersweet reality: the Irvins have sold the current site to a couple who plan to revive the winery (renaming it Deep Water Vineyards). By late 2017, Firefly will move to a more accessible location in North Charleston.
"We needed to expand here, but Wadmalaw said no," Macmurphy says. That means losing the island ambiance, but Firefly is ready to branch out. "In two years, we'll have a bourbon. It's aging now," he says.
No name has been chosen, but "Wadmalaw Island Bourbon" has a nice ring to it.
For more information, visit www.fireflyspirits.com or call (843) 557-1405.