In a food town, it’s all about flavor, and those on the liquid side in Charleston are keeping things very interesting.
Three Charleston guys are applying “farm-to-glass” thinking in the creation of fruit sodas such as strawberry-and-jalapeno. And the hometown distillery, Firefly, has rolled out three new liqueurs based on beloved Southern desserts, including ’nana puddin’.
While Charleston has a range of great food, “There wasn’t a serious nonalcoholic beverage option represented,” says Mick Matricciano, 26, one of the three partners in the newly formed Cannonborough Beverage Company. “We kind of saw an opening there.”
Matricciano hooked up with Matt Fendley, 26, and lifelong friend Brandon Wogamon, 24, to start up the soda business this spring. The sodas made their debut at the Charleston Farmers Market, and for now, it is the only place to experience them. A 12-ounce serving is $3.
Many, but not all, are seasonal because they are inspired by locally grown fruits. Some of their recent flavors include the strawberry-jalapeno, with a pleasant but noticeable kick of pepper on the finish; lemon with bay laurel; blueberry and thyme; and a soft ginger “beer” made with fresh ginger and lime juice.
They’ve paired grapefruit with mint and cherry with basil, and made a cream soda with caramelized sugar.
The idea, they say, is to take a culinary approach to the sodas, mirroring the trend in mixology and craft cocktails. Of course, the sodas work very well with alcohol, but “you can’t drink great cocktails all day,” Matricciano says.
Meanwhile, the crew at Firefly on Wadmalaw Island has added to its eclectic stable of Dixie-centric spirits. The new line of liqueurs, called Southern Accents, consists of Banana Pudding, Peach Cobbler and Pecan Pie. The Firefly family has grown to 17 flavors spread over vodka, rum, bourbon and liqueur.
Company co-founder Scott Newitt came up with the idea for dessert liqueurs.
“There were a lot of crazy vodkas that came out after we introduced Sweet Tea, things like whipped cream flavor and cake and cupcake, and Loopy, which tastes like Froot Loops (cereal). We started a crazy flavor surge.
“We wanted to come out with not another vodka line, but a shooter or after-dinner drink, kind of like a Bailey’s or Kahlua, a lower-proof alcohol that you just pour over the rocks,” Newitt says.
That and sticking to Firefly’s Southern roots made the dessert theme a natural. Newitt took the concept to business partner Jim Irvin. (“He’s the chemist, that’s not my forte,” says Newitt). Irvin then developed the flavors based on family recipes.
“In the fall, we’ll probably have a coconut cake and a Key Lime pie,” Newitt says.
The Southern Accent liqueurs, which are 40 proof and priced about $15, can be found in 200 liquor stores across South Carolina. Newitt estimates about 80 percent of the local stores are stocking the line. Previously the liqueurs had been available only at the distillery since being introduced at Christmas.
Sales are going well, Newitt says, and he’s seeing preferences fall somewhat according to age. “The pecan pie seems to be my age (47) and older who enjoy that the best. Maybe pecans are an acquired taste. I think kids would rather eat banana pudding than pecan pie.”
The Cannonborough entrepreneurs wouldn’t necessarily agree.
Asked to define a “serious” soda, and Matricciano says right away that it can’t be too sweet.
“Balance is the most important thing to us,” the interplay between sweetness and acidity, he says. “We don’t want it to be too sweet, but we don’t want it to be too dry, either.”
Also important to them is the use of local produce, limiting the concentration of flavors to keep it on the light side and “not muddling a lot of different flavors together.”
Matricciano says the goal is to showcase one specific ingredient such as blueberry and use “aromatic components to play with that and give it a little bit more complexity.” Aromatics might include bay leaf, thyme, mint, clove and vanilla, for example.
As with any product development, there have been some flops.
“We’re still trying to crack cucumber,” Matricciano says. “We would love to do rosemary, but so far everything has turned out overpowering.”
Cannonborough Beverage was the brainchild of Matricciano, a culinary graduate of the Art Institute of Charleston who bartends at the Belmont and FIG; Fendley, a fresh graduate of the College of Charleston with an accounting degree who works at Moe’s Southwest Grill; and Wogamon, who is working at Ice Box beverage services and Social Wine Bar. All were living on Cannon Street and still are, as housemates now, and were looking to do something on the side.
“We tossed around some food truck ideas, and smaller ideas like that,” Matricciano says, before hitting on the soda idea.
For the time being, they are producing 5-gallon batches in kegs each week to pour on draft at the farmers market, where they set up shop on the first and third Saturdays of the month. Currently, the kitchen at Social serves as their base of operations.
“Our biggest ambition is working with the (S.C.) Department of Agriculture to start bottling and getting kegs into local bars and coffee shops” so the soda will be available to people when they want it, Matricciano says.
Nobody’s quitting his night job anytime soon.
“Soda in the morning, work at night,” quips Fendley.