In High Spirits: Bridget Firtle on Being a Distiller, an Entrepreneur and a New Yorker

Bridget Firtle, the woman behind The Noble Experiment and Owney’s NYC Rum, hadn’t planned on becoming a distiller.

Bridget Firtle talks fast. She has to — she has a lot to say, and there are only a few more minutes left on her iPhone timer before she needs to go check the on the temperature of the tanks in the back room of her Bushwick distillery, The Noble Experiment. We’re sitting in the distillery’s front room, at a long table surrounded by mismatched wooden chairs. Along the wall behind us is a wooden bar and rows of ice-shiny square bottles with Firtle’s distinctive black-and-white labels pasted on. Soon they’ll be filled with the product of those tanks in the back: Owney’s NYC Rum.

Firtle, a tall woman in her early 30s, hadn’t planned on becoming a distiller. After graduating from undergraduate and graduate business schools, the Brooklyn native became a hedge fund manager in the consumer sector on Wall Street. “I weaseled my way into becoming a global beverages investor,” she says of her involvement with the alcohol industry giant Molson Coors, which produces brands like Coors, Keystone and Blue Moon. “My niche was global alcoholic beverages. I was seeing what was going on with the resurgence of the domestic distilling, and I was falling in love with the people behind craft distilleries and and what they were doing differently.”

She was successful in every sense of the traditional understanding of “success”: she had a stable, lucrative career and a big TriBeCa apartment. But she was also developing an itch. “I had always wanted to open my own business,” she says. While working at the hedge fund, her interest in the alcohol industry, and especially in craft distilling, grew. “Rum happens to be my favorite spirit, and I was disheartened that there were so few rum distilleries in America. So I was doing some soul-searching in 2011, and in doing my research and networking for my venture capital job, I decided it was time for a change. I needed a big change, and I just decided I’m gonna do this distillery thing,” she says. “I started writing the business plan while I was still at the hedge fund.”

She visited small distilleries around the United States, read everything she could, drank a lot of rum, quit her Wall Street Job, moved back in with her parents. By late August of 2012, she had completed construction on the distillery. She called the business The Noble Experiment (a nickname for the Prohibition, the last time rum was really produced domestically) as both a nod to the distillers before her and as an acknowledgment of her own bold entrepreneurship. And by mid-October, she had a bottled product that was ready to sell. “It was bad timing,” she says with a shake of her head. Only a few weeks later, Hurricane Sandy would wreak havoc on New York; the Rockaways, where her parents live, were hit particularly hard.

This did not deter Firtle; in fact, nothing seems to deter her. She was not swayed when, in doing her research, she realized that because the domestic rum industry “had been pretty much dead for 100 years, there weren’t a lot of people ready to help me. I came to the realization and acceptance that I was going to be the one making the booze.” She was the distillery’s only employee — the proprietor, head distiller, forklift driver, bottler, head of sales and marketing — until the spring of 2014. (She now has three employees: a distiller, an apprentice distiller and a brand ambassador and vice president of sales.) “I like to think of the first of 2013 as our first day of sales. It was no real start. I started selling it out of the trunk of my car.” But she kept going.

“Arrogance, foolishness, excitement, ambition. That’s what makes people take the leap into owning their own businesses,” she says. “It starts with a wholehearted, soul belief in your vision.”

For Firtle and The Noble Experiment, that vision is starting to come to life. “It keeps evolving,” she says. “It’s dynamic, it’s a living thing. It’s improving. Hopefully we’re just at the start at bringing back domestically distilled rum in a really unique way. We’re just starting to tell our story in new markets and telling our story in new ways. We’re now being distributed more domestically and internationally.”

That vision really comes down to the distillery’s product: a white rum that Firtle called Owney’s after the Prohibition-era rumrunner and gangster Owen “Owney” Madden, who also owned (and supplied booze to) speakeasies and clubs like Harlem’s famed Cotton Club. Owney is an especially apt namesake for Firtle’s rum: “He had an estate in the Rockaways — my parents’ house used to be a bar that was active during Prohibition — and he ran rum from the Caribbean,” she says.

These days, the rum is more legal and more local. “Our whole philosophy is to source the best ingredients we can find, and use them in the best way possible with proprietary techniques that show how good and simple they are. We’re not adding anything back to it, no sugar or barrel aging,” Firtle tells me. There are only three ingredients in Owney’s NYC Rum: New York City filtered tap water. All natural non-GMO sugarcane from independent sugarcane farms in Louisiana and Florida. Proprietary yeast. A first-boil molasses, which is about 80% sugar (“It tastes really good,” says Firtle. “It’s the highest grade you can get. We get a really good fermentation out of that.”)

“They get mashed” — cooked together — “and then fermented for 5 days, which is long for rum. Usually rum is fermented only about 48 hours,” she says. “It doesn’t go above 75 degrees, though most rum is fermented at a much higher temperature. The yeast produces acids as a defense against alcohol poisoning. It’s magic — this is how esters — the chemical compounds that give an alcohol its unique flavor profile — are made: in Owney’s, they’re tropical fruits, banana, smokiness. Then we take that flavorful fermented wash and distill it.” The result is a white rum with a distillate of 164 proof, or about 82 percent ABV.

“Distillation is definitely an art and a science, and the art is the part I’ve had to overcome,” says Firtle, who identifies as more of a math-science thinker. “Your own personal style, how you want your own spirit to taste. That’s really risky! I went to undergrad business school! You’re supposed to have sample tests! I just decided that I was going to make a product that I really liked the taste of and liked the look and packaging of, and maybe that was really stupid, but it worked.”

Firtle has put a lot of consideration into every aspect of her product, especially the ingredients in her rum — even the New York City water (which, like so many native New Yorkers, she defends as the best water in the world) — and takes pride in the spirit’s all-American sourcing. “I think there should be transparency among all food and beverage producers, and I think there’s a pretty big lack of transparency in the alcohol business,” she says. “There’s not a lot of traceability in spirits, but we want to take it from the opposite perspective. We believe the person who drinks Owney’s cares about that too. We tell it like it is.”

And she does. When I ask what her thoughts are on being a woman in a male-dominated field, she says, “I don’t have an opinion on it, honestly. I came from a firm where I was the only non-administrative woman there. Maybe I’m just drawn towards these kinds of businesses.

“Historically, this has been an old boys’ network — as everything has been. It’s mostly been white men who dominate business. These days there are actually a lot of women involved. All my employees are female. We might be the world’s only all-women distillery. It just happened that way, though. These women were just the best talent, some of the best in the business.

“If anything, it’s helped us differentiate ourselves,” says Firtle. “People seem to want to talk about it. It brings us some attention. People sometimes won’t believe I’m the owner and head distiller of this business, but it doesn’t bother me. I think it’s funny that they’re so naive.”

She does have a vested interest in supporting women entrepreneurs, though. “I really believe in small business, and I believe that supporting those businesses, and creating an environment that fosters that, will lead to more tax dollars, more wealth, a higher standard of living and more philanthropic efforts to help perpetuate that,” she says. For March, Women’s History Month, 25 percent of her sales will go to the Tory Burch Foundation, an organization committed to helping women entrepreneurs.

Connectedness as a business-owner is deeply important to Firtle, whether to other women entrepreneurs, to other New Yorkers or to other rum-drinkers. “ I’m such a proud New Yorker,” she says, “My maternal grandfather owned a bar on Flatbush Ave. It feels like it’s in my blood to follow in those footsteps. Just being able to create jobs, hopefully more over time and over time give back to the community — that’s pretty awesome. We just got placed at Radio City Music Hall, and my parents were saying how blown away my grandparents would have been.

“One of the reasons I’m so happy in doing what I do now is that it’s extremely tangible. When I was on Wall St. I was making a lot of money trading stocks — but I couldn’t touch it. Now, it’s so fucking cool to be able to make something good with my hands, share it, drink it with people. There aren’t words for how cool that is.” And then she hops up from the table and strides back into the distillery. It’s time to add the molasses to the tanks.

Photo credit: Jessica Chou

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Caroline Lange is a writer and a student at Barnard College, where she studies English and Women's, Gender, & Sexuality Studies. The farmers market occasionally makes her more emotional than she'd care to admit. She continues her search for the best coffee shop in New York.