There’s a special zen that drummers experience.
On the surface, drumming is a sweaty, draining, physical workout that blends the scientific precision and rigor of snapping sticks on hard surfaces with the artistic expressiveness of improvisation. Below the surface, drumming often offers a zone of something deeper. The soothing stability of a powerful, driving beat becomes a gateway to the emotional and, sometimes, spiritual.
“It’s my meditation,” said Scott Newitt, the Firefly Distillery co-founder who first picked up the sticks at age 7. “It clears my mind.”
His first drum set came from J.C. Penney. Then at age 11, he got what might be the coolest — a brown wooden Slingerland set built the same year he was born, 1965.
“It’s been in the back of multiple pickup trucks to play gigs,” he said sitting at a 13-foot kitchen island in a comfortable Mount Pleasant home with views of a slice of Hobcaw Creek marsh. “I’ve had that set since 1976.”
A few years back, he took off the drum hardware and sent the stripped-down kit to Mount Pleasant craftsman Vern Carter of Chehaw River Woodworks to restore it.
“It looked like it had played at a lot of frat parties, so it was pretty beat up and tattered,” Carter recalled. “It had definitely seen a lot of miles and hard abuse.”
After a restoration that took a few weeks, the set is now a thing of beauty. A bass drum, floor tom and pair of mounted toms shine with a rich brown Brazilian cherry finish. And they sound sweet.
“I would play an hour a day in junior and senior high school for escape,” recalled Newitt, whose family moved around alot until around eighth grade when they settled outside of New Orleans. “I grew up playing drums in bars.”
And he later played during college, first at Louisiana Tech and then at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. His bands played lots of cover songs by groups like the B-52s and R.E.M.
In recent years, he branched out to play some bluegrass music, but lately has had to practice solo, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. And that, he grumbles, isn’t the same as playing live with good guitarists and singers.
After college, Newitt put his finance degree to work at an Atlanta bank, where he met his wife, Trish. Soon, though, he was on the move after taking a sales job with Gallo Winery. He learned the wine business, moving to Mississippi, Texas, South Carolina and North Carolina. When he was offered a big job in Florida, he and his wife decided they wanted to be in Charleston, where Newitt took a job with a wine distributor.
By 2005, he and Jim Irvin of Irvin House Vineyards decided to start Firefly, soon producing its unique and popular Sweet Tea Vodka on Wadmalaw Island.
Carter remembers getting a taste of Sweet Tea in 2006 when Irvin and Newitt were still working on it.
“We had a little prayer group and he was a wine salesman and brought a sample of what he had,” Carter said. “Scott said he was at a crossroads in his life and deciding whether to market this product or sell wine for the rest of his life.
“Of course, we all thought it was really awesome. It was kind of cool to be part of his life at that kind of crossroads.”
This year, Firefly took another leap of faith by opening a modern production facility on 50 acres in North Charleston. Newitt tells people he’s in charge of everything on the outside of the bottle — marketing, sales, logistics, distribution and more. And he adds, with a twinkle, it’s better that way.
Newitt’s favorite drink is Firefly’s six-time distilled vodka with tonic water and squirt of lime. But he’s passionate about wine, particularly pinot noir. He still fondly recalls a buying trip from about 20 years ago with a handful of colleagues.
“I went to every single vineyard for 19 days and tasted wines from families that have been there for years,” said Newitt. “I started studying wine in 1990 and I’m still studying it,” adding that he passed two of four major tests required to be a master sommelier. “I’m a good taster, but others are really good tasters.”
Newitt pairs his wine experience with food. He remembers visiting a Cajun neighbor as a boy and absorbing how to make killer etouffee and gumbos. (The key to a good gumbo, he says, is patience to make the roux. A good one can take 40 minutes.)
Newitt also fires up a grill often to cook meats and uses a Green Egg to grill pizza.
Like drumming, cooking takes practice. But after you cook a couple of thousand omelettes, you eventually know how to make amazing ones, he said.
When not working, drumming or cooking, you’ll often find Newitt and his family at a McClellanville retreat or delighting in the variety of the Lowcountry’s coast.
“I enjoy doing things with my family and that may be cooking or going out on the boat,” he said. “This COVID-19 thing has hammered that home — there’s not much else we can do.”