Before The Noble Experiment NYC founder Bridget Firtle was measuring the chemical compositions of water suitable for distilling, she was analyzing stocks at a hedge fund as a global alcoholic beverage analyst. “I learned a lot about the market and brand development and watched what was starting to happen in domestically distilled spirits again and about the proliferation of the so called craft spirit producers,” she explains. “I just became way more excited in what I was watching than what I was doing.”
After a lot of thought, the finance major and Binghamton business school graduate decided to swap out her desk for a distillery. She launched The Noble Experiment in January 2013, where she concocted her first spirit: Owney’s NYC Rum. Here, we chat with Firtle about the country’s first ever distilled offering, why we should all consider the daiquiri, and about the very influential bootlegger that inspired the spirit’s moniker.
How did you decide to distill rum, in particular?
For many reasons: the rich history of it, my admiration for it, and an opportunity to differentiate myself. Right now, 55 percent of craft distillers are doing whiskey, which is kind of what the market is calling for currently. But I wanted to be different, and rum is also my favorite spirit. I figured you better love something that you’re going to be living and breathing.
What is it about the history of rum that inspired you?
It’s romantic to me — the history of booze in this country. It was such a big part of our economy prior to prohibition, and then, of course, there was a lot of elicit activity during prohibition. Rum was the first spirit we distilled in this country, and it was really important to the formation of the United States — it was one of the causes of the American Revolution. It kind of lost popularity for a number of reasons after the American Revolution. People were moving west and growing grains to make whiskey, and a lot of the molasses that we had access to that we were distilling rum from in the northeast was coming from the British Navy — from their Caribbean colonies. Once they were gone, we had lost access to that molasses and most of where we grow sugarcane now in this country hadn’t been settled yet — Florida and Louisiana, some parts of Texas and southern California. Rum was one of the popular beverage choices during prohibition because of the proximity to the Caribbean and the rum there. Prohibition was the last time we really had a domestic spirits industry, and there was a lot of homemade booze being made in the city.
What can you tell me about Owen “Owney” Madden, after whom you named the spirit?
Owney had his hands in everything during prohibition. He was a West Side gang member prior to prohibition, so he was knee deep in the underground economy, and he capitalized on the change in legislation in a variety of ways — by bootlegging and operating a bunch of speakeasies, including Cotton Club. He was a rum runner. His people had an estate in Rockaway, which is right on the Atlantic Ocean, and they used to smuggle rum in through the Caribbean through the Rockaways.
What’s next for The Noble Experiment?
The plan is to be an exclusive rum distillery. The Owney’s white rum will serve as the flagship spirit, but over time, we’ll have variants on it. We have some rum that is aging right now that will be an aged version of Owney’s, which could be ready as early as the end of this year, but more likely in 2015. There should be a variety of aged Owney’s available over the next three to 10 years. Intermittently, over the holidays we did some infused varieties that were available in 200 milliliter offerings. I did a Madagascar vanilla bean and a rosemary and a mint, which we grew in the backyard of the distillery. We’ll be doing those two times a year — a fall/winter version and a spring/summer version — maybe even quarterly, as we continue to grow.
How do you like to drink Owney’s?
Generally speaking, I’m a purist. I very much enjoy all of the cocktails and the ways bartenders have been using it across the city, so I must give credit to them. But if I’m drinking it, I’ll have it with a couple of ice cubes and a slice of lime.
And if you were to opt for a cocktail?
The easiest thing for me to make is a daiquiri. I always tout the classic daiquiri because it’s not a familiar drink to many, and it’s something that has kind of been bastardized by big blenders and high fructose variants that come out of a bottle. Classically, it’s really just rum, fresh lime juice, and simple syrup. You can recreate that at home. Many bartenders around the world would argue it’s the most well balanced classic cocktail.
What has been the most challenging aspect of launching a small distillery?
To have patience — but that’s my personality type. It takes a really long time to get the word out. There has been a lot of great reception, but it takes time to build a brand. There are a lot of brands in this industry that have been around for a really long time, and they have really cultivated a strong and loyal following. Every day is a new challenge for a small producer to get the word out, which requires having the resources, having the wherewithal, and having the patience. Organic development of a brand takes years.
What has been your favorite part of the process?
Oh — it’s all so cool. My favorite part has been meeting people who want to support you and get on board for the cause for no reason. Whether it’s the consumers who are taking photos of the cocktails they’ve been making with Owney’s and tweeting them at me, or folks I’ve never met before who are sending me emails saying that I’ve somehow inspired them — I print those out and hang them on my office wall. Or the writers who want to tell my story. The people I’ve encountered along the way have created this really rewarding and exciting experience. Just this Saturday, my friend texted me a picture of Owney’s from a bar in the East Village, and she was like, “I shrieked when I saw it — it just never gets old!” And it doesn’t — it’s so exciting to think that I made something that someone is drinking somewhere. The cool factor is exponential. I’m very grateful for that, and anybody who is in that channel who helps — I can’t thank them enough.
What is your outlook on the New York beverage industry?
It’s an extremely competitive market — probably the most competitive in the world. It has been and continues to be a wonderful first step of the experience, and I’m looking forward to taking what I’ve learned here and hopefully applying it to many more markets over the years.
If Owen Madden were to taste Owney’s, what do you hope his reaction would be?
“This is great — I want to distribute it!”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 8, 2014