Java and Spice with Sea Island Rum

Our recent visit to Firefly Distillery in Wadmalaw, South Carolina, was a great experience, and also provided a chance to taste the Sea Island rum that Jim Irvin is crafting there. They have three varieties – the Carolina Gold, the Spice, and the Java, which is a coffee and spice infused bomb of a rum.

The donkey-driven sugarcane press from Guatemala
Rum aging in Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels

All of these rums start with Southern sugarcane, sourced from John’s Island near the distillery as well as Louisiana and Florida. There’s a cranky old sugarcane press out in the yard that they found in Guatemela, which, with the help of a donkey, presses out the sugarcane. Distilled in small batches, the rum then sees some time in used bourbon barrels from Buffalo Trace, up to three years or so. The high quality sugarcane and the bourbon barrel aging come together to create a distinctive product, and Irvin’s experiments with infusing all-natural flavors and spices into these rums takes it up a notch or two in the “wow” category. They currently have distribution around South Carolina,  and at the distillery itself of course, but are expanding now to Georgia and hopefully beyond. Here’s a taste of what you can expect if you can get your hands on some of the Sea Island Rum.

Sea Island Spice Rum
70 Proof
Approx. $22 Retail
Tasting Date: August 5, 2011 (and prior)

A clear pale straw gold in the glass, with a nice viscosity that clings to the glass. Notes of butterscotch and vanilla jump out on the nose, a hint of nutmeg and baking spice lingering behind, like a warm, buttery cinnamon roll. On the palate, the spice and sweetness of the sugarcane are incredibly well balanced, this is not an overly assertive spiced rum, more like a spiced banana bread with an almost creamy (well, cream ale) presence. Warm lingering finish, a touch of heat that manages to hold the sweet and sharp notes in harmony. The folks at Firefly recommend trying it with an assertive ginger beer or ginger ale like South Carolina’s Blenheim for a spin on the Dark and Stormy, but it works great straight as well.

Excellent* – a great marriage of rum quality and balanced spice, a true treat if you’ve only tried Captain Morgan’s.


Sea Island Java Rhum
70 Proof
Approx. $22 Retail
Tasting Date: August 5, 2011 (and prior)

Dark walnut brown in the glass, nearly impenetrable.  Huge coffee and deep dark chocolate brownie nose (yet again, that bourbon barrel-aged sugarcane rum makes baked good comparisons come naturally), tart dark cherry notes underneath that massive coffee and chocolate, burnt brown sugar as well. Incredibly full when it hits your tongue, warm and deep, obviously coffee driven, but the dark chocolate brownie presence rushes to the front, then subsides under a chewy bite of a finish, which alternates back and forth between coffee, chocolate, dark but bright cherry notes, and the miraculously long lingering pleasantly sweet burn of the rum.

Excellent* – dessert in a glass, an amazing dessert at that, and will blow away comparisons to Kahlua (try it in any cocktail recipe that calls for Kahlua and see what you think).


* Thirsty South Rating Scale:
Wow – among the very best: knock-your-socks-off, profound, complex liquid gold!
Excellent – exceptional in quality and character, worth seeking out, highly recommended
Good Stuff – solid expression of its type/varietal, enjoyable and recommended
Fair – fairly standard or exhibiting obvious though minor flaws
Avoid – move away folks, nothing to see here, a trainwreck

A Visit to Wadmalaw Island: Firefly Distillery

Wadmalaw Island sits a bit south of Charleston,  bordered by Bohicket Creek and the North Edisto River, dotted with live oak trees dripping in Spanish moss, home to America’s only tea plantation, as well as a little distillery called Firefly.

Firefly Distillery is not well marked. You’re highly unlikely to happen upon it, as it sits near the end of a long road on the way to nowhere, towards the end of Wadmalaw Island. The local authorities won’t even let Firefly put up signs to help alert some of the visitors to nearby Kiawah or Seabrook Island that a distillery is just down the road. That is often the nature of being a distillery in the South, a tug of war between being a blessing on AND a pariah to the local community at the same time. So, Firefly is a destination for seekers, those who love their sweet tea vodka, or who have heard of their delicious Sea Island rums, or, maybe, those who are simply seeking a fascinating peek into the mind of a mad scientist out in the islands of South Carolina’s low country.

Jim Irvin is the mad scientist behind Firefly. He started making muscadine wine out on Wadmalaw over a decade ago, but really found his calling when he partnered with Scott Newitt and came up with the idea of a Southern sweet tea vodka using tea from the nearby plantation – the only tea plantation in the United States. Jim is clearly a restless tinkerer – his liquor stills look like something out of a high school science project gone grand and the grounds of the distillery are dotted with experiments in the making, stevia plants and multiple hops varieties growing in the garden, barrels aging, antique machinery being tested. That experimentation is paying off in the form of some wonderful products that can be sampled at the Firefly tasting room – a bracingly tart lemonade vodka, a rich and warming coffee spiced rum, and, of course, their line of sweet tea vodkas.

Before we hit the tasting room, Jay MacMurphy, who runs the daily operations at the distillery, showed us around the grounds: the beautiful muscadine vines set amongst the oaks, the garden overflowing with stevia and hops and fruit, that science project of a still, the hand-labeling of bottles. Kids will love visiting with the animals – goats and pigs and chickens and rabbits eager for a visit.

As you head into the operations areas of the distillery, it’s clear that the actual production here in Wadmalaw is small: micro-distillery batches of up to 500 gallons at a time. The big volume stuff – the main line of sweet tea vodkas – is handled on dedicated equipment in Kentucky by the Sazerac Company. Wadmalaw takes care of the limited releases and the Sea Island rums, many of which you can only find at the distillery itself or in South Carolina. The barrel aging room is small and warm, the better to encourage the interaction of the wood and the spirits. The “lab” is a nook of equipment and test batches, notes scribbled all over the place. And those stills… they are a science lover’s take on the distillation process, no elegant copper domes in sight. It all shows that this is a place built on passion.

On to the tasting room, where $6 gets you a sampling of their products and your own Firefly shot glass. The highlight is the ability to try some things you’re not likely to find at home: the limited Sea Island sugar cane rums (which are planned to get distribution in Georgia in the near future), Firefly’s “handcrafted” vodka (no tea, just vodka), and their lemonade vodka which can only be bought at the distillery. These are all excellent products and you will likely find it hard to leave without a bottle or two (we took home a few bottles of spiced rum and Java rum).

As you happily leave the tasting rooms, the South Carolina sun soaks through the oaks and Spanish moss, and you realize again that Firefly sits in a special place. Firefly’s sweet tea vodka may be found all over the country now, but Wadmalaw Island is its home, and it’s a magical place to be, even if it’s just for an hour or two.


The donkey-powered sugar cane press, chewing up sugar cane

The “science project gone grand”

The lab of the mad scientist

Barrels from Buffalo Trace for aging Sea Island rum

Sea Island Rum in the tasting room

The muscadine vines surrounded by oak and moss


Read our tasting notes for the Sea Island Spice Rum and Java Rhum

Full Disclosure: Our tasting room visit at Firefly Distillery was complimentary.