Three years ago and not yet thirty, Bridget Firtle did what many dream of but few actually do: she left a lucrative career to pursue her dreams. She details her journey standing by a row of fermentation tanks full of sugar cane molasses, yeast, and filtered water. Soon she’ll move this wash into a copper still a few yards away, eventually blending, filtering, and bottling it. The cavernous room hosting the process is The Noble Experiment, Firtle’s distillery, and her dream. Its sole output is crystal-clear Owney’s Rum, named after a prolific New York rum smuggler. This room where it all happens represents ambitions both personal and global — and the unlikely path Firtle took to achieve them.
Before she spent her days making heart cuts under fluorescent lights, Firtle was a hedge fund analyst in Manhattan’s financial district. She woke up every morning at 5 a.m., headed to the gym, worked ten or twelve hours, crashed at her plush TriBeCa loft, and did it again the next day, week after week. It was a grind, but Firtle liked the niche she’d carved out for herself at the fund analyzing equities in global alcoholic beverages. She worked with brands like Pernod and Anheuser-Busch, gleaning insights about the inner workings of the industry’s biggest players.
But as she shaped investments in huge corporations, her attention wandered often to the revival underway of small-batch domestic distilling. Her interest in finance was waning, too, and she longed for a career where the results of her work were tangible. So she quit the fund, moved back in with her parents in Queens, and emptied her savings to buy a warehouse in East Williamsburg’s barren industrial business zone.
“It’s hard to explain why I did it,” Firtle says. “There was just something inside of me. I really believed in this idea [of having] my own distillery in my hometown of New York that makes rum, which is America’s first spirit.” She called it The Noble Experiment, a nod to both Prohibition and the personal experiment her distillery embodied.
Firtle wanted her work to be tangible. And now her first product, Owney’s Rum, is garnering national attention and prestige. Photo by Nick Johnson.
Deciding what to make was an easier choice. “I love rum and the history of it, but I also love drinking it,” says Firtle. “I figured that whatever I chose to make, I’d better like it, because I’ll be drinking a lot of it.” Her rum is an exercise in pure precision, with no additives or preservatives and just three ingredients: organic sugar cane molasses from small Southern plantations, yeast and filtered tap water, which New Yorkers have long boasted is the best tap water in the country. Firtle makes every batch herself to ensure it meets her vision.
With her background in global alcohol brands, Firtle has no illusions about rum’s status in American drinking culture. The market is dominated by two labels, Bacardi and Captain Morgan, and the domestic spirits revival has shown little interest in the liquid. “There’s confusion over what rum is and how to drink it” amongst the general public, says Firtle, a particular shame considering it was the first spirit distilled in the US. But in that dearth of knowledge lies “an opportunity for us to shape how people think of it,” she continues. “Educating people on the category will benefit small producers globally. Rum is made in 70 parts of the world. It’s unifying from a world perspective.”
Firtle’s main weapon in her re-education campaign is the daiquiri, one of many classic cocktails that emerged from the dark ages of the ’80s as a zombified version of its magnificent former self. “We went from something developed in 1900 in Cuba that’s as classic as it gets — rum, lime, and sugar — to this slurry, blended mess of different over-sugared fruits,” laments Firtle. To “free the daiquiri from the blender,” she’s opened a bar and tasting room in front of the distillery. At the Daq Shaq, customers can order a classic daiquiri or a number of specials featuring one-off Owney’s permutations available only at the bar. And it’s working: “We’re seeing that people love daiquiris.” They just had to try the real thing.
Despite multiple early successes — unexpected press, competition medals, accounts nationwide — Firtle knows her work has just begun. She wants daiquiris to be a call drink like Manhattans and Old Fashioneds, and Owney’s to be the daiquiri rum of choice. She knows she’s years away from that level of recognition, but she’s undaunted. “We have something awesome already that hasn’t reached its potential,” she says. “So blinders on until we get that where we want.”
Firtle is determined to keep her nose to the grindstone until she’s placed rum on the forefront of the American cocktail consciousness. Photo by Carolyn Fong.