CHARLESTON, S.C. (CN) - The inventor of South Carolina's best-selling flavored vodka says he's been cheated by the distillery that makes and merchandises it. Richard Patrick says the owners of the Irvin-House Vineyard and Firefly Distillery on Wadmalaw Island conspired to keep the profits from Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka to themselves.
Patrick, a onetime tour guide and tasting room associate at the Irvin-House Vineyard and Firefly Distillery, sued both businesses and their principals, Jim Irvin and Scott Newitt.
The vodka is sold in South Carolina and 10 other Southeast states, including Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, Louisiana and Tennessee.
But the lawsuit comes on the heels of an announcement that Firefly Distillery and The Sazerac Company of New Orleans have formed a joint venture to sell Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka globally.
Charleston attorney Daniel Slotchiver represents Patrick with Clayton McCullough of the Pratt-Thomas Walker law firm, declined to comment, saying the complaint speaks for itself.
Mary Frash, a spokeswoman for the vineyard and distillery, said the defendants have not issued a response to Patrick's allegations.
Irvin-House Vineyards produces wine from muscadine grapes. Firefly Distillery, located on the same property, produces and sells two products: Firefly Muscadine Vodka, using grapes grown at the vineyard, and Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka.
The two companies have overlapping staff, ownership, management and business interests.
According to the complaint in the Charleston County Court of Common Pleas, Patrick was hired to work in the vineyard's tasting room and to conduct tours, and later entered into an independent contractor relationship with the distillery. Under that agreement, Patrick sold muscadine vodka on commission.
Patrick decided to try his hand at coming up with a new flavored vodka. He experimented with different formulas and ingredients, outside of the scope of his daily work, the complaint said.
During September and October 2007, Patrick says he worked almost exclusively on trying to come up with a coffee-flavored vodka. After multiple attempts failed, he was inspired by a bourbon and sweet tea drink he sampled, and turned his attention to creating a vodka that tasted like sweet iced tea.
The drink made its debut at the Irvin-House vineyard a month later, during a series of dinners put on for food and beverage industry executives. Based on the positive response it received, Patrick says he perfected the formula, came up with a name for it, and pitched the drink to Irvin and Newitt as an addition to Firefly's product line.
Irvin and Newitt agreed. Patrick says he told the two men he wanted to have a written agreement signed before proceeding any further on what he described as a "partnership and/or joint venture."
Patrick's complaint states that both men told him there didn't need to be a written agreement and that he would be "taken care of" as a partner if and when the product proved successful.
Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka came into distribution in April this year, and quickly became the top-selling flavored vodka in South Carolina, the complaint states.
Still uneasy about his compensation and ownership rights, Patrick said he again sought a written agreement with the two men. Again, he says, he was told he would be taken care of, and was told that such agreements were not normally written down, but were oral contracts.
"Based on his inexperience and naiveté, [Patrick] believed [these representations] and did not get a written document detailing the terms of the joint venture/partnership," the complaint states.
By July, Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka was a runaway success, not only in Charleston, but increasingly throughout the Southeast.
Patrick contends his personal efforts wee largely responsible for getting the vodka into local restaurants and bars and helping it establish a foothold in the crowded flavored vodka market.
Despite these efforts, the complaint states, Patrick was pushed out of the joint venture on July 14, based on the false assertion that he had engaged in corporate espionage.
Since terminating their relationship, Patrick said Irvin and Newitt have denied his creation of the formula, denied his rights to the term "Sweet Tea Vodka," and denied his ownership interested to the formula and any share of the profits generated by it.
Co-counsel Clayton McCullough said the lawsuit was filed after attempts to negotiate proved fruitless.
Asked about how much money might be involved, McCullough said, "That's the great unknown at this point.
"We've gotten some intellectual property counsel to work with us and we can make some assumptions based on their promotional literature, but our client has not been involved with them for quite some time now and honestly, we just don't know," he said.
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