Owney's NYC Rum Founder Bridget Firtle: "The Cool Factor Is Exponential"
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."
Owney's via Facebook
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.