Sweet tea vodka flies in Prairieville

Andrea Alexander

People tend to believe that manufacturing and agricultural industries in America have dwindled to a vestige of the past. But Prairieville resident Thomas Landaiche has a hard time buying that notion as he travels across Louisiana, promoting a product generated by three major Southern industries: spirits, tea, and sugar.

Landaiche is broker for Firefly Vodka Distilleries, a company that’s fused two favorite southern beverages – tea and vodka – to create the nation’s first “sweet tea vodka.” Judging by Landaiche’s successful marketing efforts, it seems that tea parties other than the recent anti-tax tea parties might be frequented across the nation.

Firefly’s 70-proof sweet tea vodka boasts four flavors (mint, peach, raspberry, and lemon), is more “drinkable” than stronger, unflavored vodka, and is easy to mix, Landaiche said. “As Southerners, we’re predisposed to enjoy iced tea. This is iced tea with a kick,” he added. In fact, the label on the bottle cautions that “This is not your grandma’s sweet tea.”

But Louisiana consumers will be interested to know that Firefly’s sweet tea vodka uses only Louisiana cane sugar as its sweetener. “Using Louisiana sugar has helped it because it makes our product more authentic. Firefly is all about being original and using real ingredients. When I tell a restaurant or bar owner that we use real Louisiana sugar, there’s an immediate interest in that,” Landaiche said.

Firefly Vodka Distilleries is the brainchild of LSU graduate Scott Newitt, who founded his distillery on Wadmalaw Island, South Carolina, in April 2008. The island (just south of Charleston) is a farming island that’s home to the only tea plantation in the country, which supplies the tea for Firefly’s beverage. There’s also a huge tomato plantation on the island, and a vineyard owned by Newitt’s business partner, Jim Irvin.

Newitt’s experience as a distributor in the spirits industry led him to his current partnership with Irvin, who had begun distilling muscadine-infused vodka at Irvin House Vineyards on the island. Newitt became inspired to experiment with sweet-tea vodka after he learned of two other tea vodkas on the market: green tea vodka and three-tea vodka.

“He really wanted to make a good southern vodka, and because sweet tea is so popular in the South, it seemed like a great idea,” Landaiche said.

Now Newitt and Irvin together make a 5-times distilled vodka that’s “perfect in clarity, taste, and consistency,” he said.

Firefly Distilleries’s sweet-tea vodka recently won distinction at a national contest held in San Francisco. It’s mint flavor wan a double gold, while the overall product placed third our of 200 entries.

That national recognition of Firefly’s vodka is no surprise to Landaiche. “It’s the hottest spirit on the market. Any bar owner who knows about it says they haven’t seen a new product sell like this in a long time,” he said.

While Firefly sweet tea vodka has been most successful in South Carolina, where it ranks as the number-one selling vodka, Landaiche is proud of its connection to Louisiana’s sugar industry. As liaison between Firefly and the Louisiana growers, Landaiche says there’s ongoing “conversation to get sugar cane growing at the South Carolina distillery. We want to buy Louisiana stalks, ship them to South Carolina, and grow the cane there under the supervision of Louisiana growers.”

That would authenticity to the distillery’s product, he speculates, and would even boost tourism on that island.

Landaiche also takes pride in the fact that Firefly’s founder, Newitt, is an LSU graduate. In fact, the company runs an internship program at LSU for seniors, who assist in calling on Firefly accounts. 

Landaiche’s own role as a liaison has turned out to be essential and fortuitous for the company, too. “Because I am here in Louisiana, it reinforces our sales effort in getting the product placed in accounts. It makes for a much more comfortable sale.” Their vodka is now sold in 50 states.

“We’re just two Louisiana guys who’ve remained friends since the mid-‘80s,” Landaiche said, musing on Firefly’s take-off to success. Apparently, two good friends and a smart idea are more than enough to make something fly in the world of spirits.

Firefly Vodka can be purchased at La Grove Plaza on Airline Hwy., Prairieville.