A year ago Bridget Firtle was living the high life: a cushy hedge-fund job analyzing corporate distillers and brewers, plus a Tribeca apartment and an enviable travel budget.
Now, she’s living the hooch life, making rum in a Bushwick distillery she’s named the Noble Experiment—a tongue-in-cheek reappropriation of the euphemism for Prohibition. Instead of meetings about money, she’s elbow-deep in molasses, and Firtle, 28, has left Tribeca to move back in with her parents in Queens.
She had arrived on Wall Street in 2007—“right before the world collapsed”—and put her MBA to use analyzing publicly traded alcohol companies. At Anheuser-Busch and the like, she met with management teams to assess profit potentials. But while she reviewed the balance sheets, her spirit was most taken with, well, spirits.
She harbored two dreams: to run her own business and to create her own craft distillery. Yet she didn’t see the two intersecting—in fact, she regarded owning a distillery as “a pipe dream, a retirement dream.”
All that changed during a TEDTalk she watched online. Although Firtle can no longer recall the name of the venture capitalist whose presentation changed her life—evidently the message overshadowed the messenger—she was galvanized by the “go for it” imperative. “How can you judge other people’s business plans if you’ve never done anything yourself?” the speaker asked. “Get out there and don’t be afraid to fail.”
Suddenly Firtle’s craft-distillery dream crystallized into immediate, real-world plans; she wrote the business plan the same day. “I marketed it to my friends at the hedge fund. I put every dollar I had in. I quit my job. I left my apartment.” And after a brief flirtation with gin, she immersed herself in rum.
Although whiskey is now America’s signature spirit, rum was made by the colonists, for the colonists. Distilled from sugarcane, it marked an intoxicating independence from Old-World gin and brandy. Historian Wayne Curtis says rum was the first liquor produced in the northern colonies—starting around 1640 on a Dutch colony since renamed Staten Island. Soon the domestic rum industry was second only to shipbuilding, but when the British turned off the molasses spigot, American distillers turned to whiskey.
Firtle is hoping to turn back the clock. But before she could resurrect a rum revolution she had to learn to make it herself—so she took distilling courses across the country and visited small distilleries to gather best practices. She signed the Bushwick lease and, while waiting for her handcrafted German still to arrive, worked one-on-one with a consultant to perfect her technique.
Then, last summer, just a year after writing her business plan, the Noble Experiment began production. The first product out of the gate (and the only one for a long time, she promises) is Owney’s Rum, a white rum named for the bootlegger behind Harlem’s famed Cotton Club. Made from domestic molasses—as locavore as sugarcane gets—Owney’s can already be found at selective bottle shops (Astor Center, Bowery & Vine and Williamsburg’s Red, White & Green) and serious bars (the Blind Barber, Brandy Library). Jonathan Park, owner of Red, White & Green, describes Owney’s as “clean and easy-drinking,” adding that the compelling Brooklyn story also goes down easy.
The distillery’s tasting room, where Prohibition-era photos and the chandelier’s yellow glow evoke a dimly lit speakeasy, opened for afternoon tours and tastings in November. Firtle plans to plant a garden out back for seasonal rum infusions with rosemary, mint or even fruits grown on-site.
An aged rum is in the works, but that’s at least two years away.
“My goal is to bring rum [production] back to New York, back to the Northeast, and maybe back to the country one day,” she vows.
Doesn’t that seem a bit ambitious? Firtle laughs. “I thrive on challenges and problem solving,” she says. In that respect, her old life prepared her well for her new one.
Photo credit: Nicole Franzen