Visiting a construction site mid-August off of South Rhett Avenue in North Charleston is about is sticky as it sounds. But it’s cool inside the rickhouse.
Barrels are stacked three high in the racks, or ricks, aging Firefly Distillery bourbon. “Eventually it’s going to be filled with barrels,” says Firefly GM Jay MacMurphy. Off to the side, there are discarded barrels and pieces of tin that will be broken down and used for facades and wall coverings in the new tasting room. “This tin came from our Wadmalaw roof when we replaced it,” notes MacMurphy.
For the last 12 years, Firefly has called Wadmalaw Island home. A long dirt road gets you there, and a property that marries a winery (Deep Water Vineyard) and distillery keeps you there. Founded by Jim Irvin — the “scientist” — and Scott Newitt — the “visionary” — Firefly led the S.C. liquor industry out of the dark ages in 2007-2008. They hired lobbyists and lawyers to get a bill passed into state law that made it affordable and legal to “distill, sample, and purchase bottled spirits” at a S.C. distillery.
“We wrote the laws because there was no precedent, says MacMurphy.
Jim and wife Anne sold the Irvin House Vineyard to Jesse and Andrea Freiwald in 2015 — once Firefly fully transitions to their new North Charleston home, the Freiwalds will maintain the only property at the end of Bears Bluff Road.
While there’s certainly something romantic about taking a trek out to a tasting room surrounded by Spanish moss and a “whole mess of gators,” the new Firefly location is much more practical, business-wise. “For reference this is about 20,000 square feet,” says MacMurphy. “We now work in about 4,000.”
We exit the rickhouse, and as our eyes adjust to the afternoon light, we look upon the 18 acres Firefly purchased from the city, property that was previously used as a dumping ground, or laydown yard. They bought the lot in 2017, but as things tend to go — especially when you have to clear out asbestos from the ground — they weren’t able to start construction until this past May.
They’re making progress though, and MacMurphy says, “I will be here running equipment in December, at least, that’s the deadline that has been given to me.” We hop over a couple of mud puddles and walk toward the entrance of the stillhouse, with a sharply pointed triangular roof matching the design of their Wadmalaw building, “it’s our logo, it’s basically the same building,” says MacMurphy. Except bigger. Way bigger.
To the left of the entrance is what will be the 800 space parking lot. Around the side is 3 acres of green lawn space that MacMurphy says can “comfortably hold more than 2,000 people,” facing the building’s huge side stage that could fit a full band, or two.
Inside, there’s retail space, a tasting room, a gift shop, event space, a conference room. Once they open, MacMurphy says a greeter will meet guests at the door, and they’ll lead tours every 15 minutes. The tour will start with a walk-through of a mini museum of sorts, outlining the history of Firefly, and of distilling in the state.
It’s appropriate that Irvin and Newitt would find a space for history — after the two made a name for themselves with sweet tea vodka, they were quick to tackle Sea Island Rum, a distillate dating back to the Lowcountry’s early drinking days.
As CP food writer Robert Moss wrote in 2011, “Forget bourbon. Its historical ties to Charleston are nearly nonexistent. If you’re looking for a drink that has meaning, look to rum. Back in the 18th century, it was the main swill of South Carolina drinkers, a product of international commerce that came from Jamaica and Barbados … By all accounts, the rum drunk in the American colonies — even the old Jamaican product — was a hot, rough spirit, palatable only when well-tempered with water, sugar, and citrus. There were no connoisseurs sipping it straight. So, a high-quality, locally made rum is a curious thing, a throwback to a time that never existed. But Jim Irvin and Scott Newitt at Firefly Distillery are dedicated to crafting a small-batch, high-quality rum that is eminently drinkable.”
Between the city-sized parking lot, capacious event space, catering kitchen, and talks of potentially running shuttles from the distillery to the Coliseum so Firefly can throw pre-parties, it’s easy to forget why we’re here in the first place. “First and foremost, we’re a distillery,” says MacMurphy. Will they offer Park Circle residents a weekly oyster roast, perhaps a seasonal farmers market, a concert every weekend? Sure. But they’re also excited to do what they do best — distill the hard stuff.
“So on the tour you’ll see the stills — this tank will be stainless steel, mostly holding tanks here, and this, this will be the blending room,” says MacMurphy. “So we’ll blend all the batches here and when we make sweet tea vodka — we pull vodka from this big holding tank and put it in the blending tank, and that batch then gets toted in a forklift right here, and this will be our bottling hall.”
The only way to access the site now is down a bumpy unpaved side street, but MacMurphy points across the way to Spruill Ave., currently obscured by trees and overgrown vegetation. “That will be our entrance.” No more delivery trucks getting stuck in the mud on Wadmalaw — Firefly distributes their goods nationwide, and this new and improved gateway will only expedite that process.
Don’t expect Firefly to rest on their liquor laurels in this new space. When asked if there are any new spirits in the works, MacMurphy grins. “Oh yes. Gin is on the horizon quickly after we move in.” They’re hoping for that holiday season December opening, which lines up perfectly with MacMurphy’s new passion project. “There are two types of gin drinkers — one is like, ‘Oh, ugh. This tastes like a Christmas tree’ and the other is ‘Oh. This tastes like a Christmas tree, this is terrific!'”
Stay up to date with the distillery’s opening date by following them on Instagram @fireflydistillery.