Sunday, October 27, 2013

A One Of A Kind Distillery On Charleston's Only Winery-Firefly and Irwin-House Winery

On the port side of Charleston, discreetly tucked away on moss-draped Wadmalaw Island, is the Lowcountry's only winery featuring vino made from domestic muscadine grapes and distilled spirits imbued with locally grown tea. Located on a road that ends at a fish hatchery, blanketed with the gnarled branches of age old oaks and a peek-a-boo view of the intercoastal waters of Wadmalaw Sound, two modest brick pillars marked the beginning of a long, winding stone-packed driveway leading to two unpretentious wood-constructed buildings - the humble tasting rooms of Irwin-House Vineyards and Firefly Distillery. Out of this simple island setting comes five of the South's finest wines and the world's first hand-crafted sweet tea flavored vodka.

On this beautiful morning of October, for the first time since moving to the Lowcountry, I visited the Irwin-House Vineyards finally fulfilling a long standing want - to see and taste first-hand the sweet tea flavored vodka that was featured in a drink I had the pleasure of consuming while dining at the Husk in Charleston. It was there I saw the name Firefly for the first time and after finding out it was brewed locally, visiting the brewery became an unrelenting desire.


Irwin-House Vineyards spreads out over the island some 48-acres consisting originally of 2,700 vines planted by Jim and Ann Irwin in March of 2001. Fulfilling a dream, Ann's gardening and painting and Jim's wine making, they purchased the property and converted the original farm barns into a winery and distillery with tasting rooms for each. Ann's gardening hobby is apparent by the large fenced in area where sugar cane and an assortment of indigenous plants grow with a small weather-worn shack in the middle rising above it all. I asked if that was the sugar cane they use in their distillery process. "We grow the sugar cane on our farm on John's Island," Mr. Irwin informed.

As you drive up the long winding driveway, the vineyard comes into view. Fenced-in rows and rows of mature muscadine grape vines spread out before you. After parking my truck under the tall oaks, it was a short walk to the rustic buildings housing the tasting rooms. A patio with a variety of chairs, potted plants, overhead strung lights, Firefly signs, and two joggling boards separated the buildings. There was a large group of parents, mostly mothers, with their children eating at tables scattered about the grounds outside of the Firefly tasting room, which was my first stop.

The interior was farm modest and down-to-earth island simple, one main bar and two smaller bars. Bottles of Vodka and Moonshine lined the walls, accompanied by a couple of electric guitars and a popcorn machine. There were six other patrons standing at the main bar chomping on popcorn and downing shots of Firefly.

I paid the $6 for a choice of six tastings from a list of Firefly's offerings. My choices were Sweet Tea, Raspberry Tea, and Peach Vodkas, Sea Island and Java Rums, and Raspberry Moonshine. My bartender served a shot glass of each one at a time while two ladies standing to the left of me, captivated by two puppies running around at the feet of the bartenders behind the bar, oohed and ahhed at their antics.

I savored each pour. They were all uniquely tasty and very smooth. Picking a favorite was difficult, but Sweet Tea and Raspberry Moonshine won out at $20 a bottle, although the Java Rum was very tempting. "The Java is very good in making Black Russians," she added.

You are free to roam among the vines where clusters of aging grapes still hung. You will likely be greeted by a friendly white Brahma bull that also roams freely among the vines. I walked around the distillery building containing a room full of barrels and another room designated the laboratory. There was also a shiny, silver still and huge vats housing the fermenting spirits. I watched workers bottle and package the Firefly brand.

It was an informative and relaxing day. I did not do the wine tasting, saved that for the next visit. For now, I achieved my goal. Address: 6775 Bears Bluff Rd, Wadmalaw Island.

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