Rum is the drink of America. It’s more American than even whiskey. You might have an eyebrow raised about that declaration, but consider this: Rum was the first spirit to be distilled in the Americas. It started with the cultivation and processing of sugar cane into molasses in the Caribbean. This turned picturesque islands into pirate-ridden colonies that were completely dominated by sugarcane growth (powered by the slave trade). The molasses boiled on those islands was then shipped to the British Colonies on the mainland, where it was distilled into rum well over 100 years before whiskey even made it to America’s shores.
Yet rum is not the spirit that the vast majority of Americans think about when they think of classic American spirits. They think whiskey and bourbon almost exclusively. Or at least they did. Now, one woman in New York helping to change that false perception and bring classic rum distillation and appreciation back to US soil.
Bridget Firtle opened up Brooklyn’s The Noble Experiment Distillery in 2012, where she produces Owney’s Rum. Noble Experiment is the first rum distillery in New York since Prohibition shuttered the last generation of rum distillers nearly 100 years ago. Firtle chose New York because she’s a native New Yorker with a deep love of her city and also because New York was one of the first places rum was distilled in the continental United States, back when it was still a fledgling British colony.
Firtle is reaching back in time to create a classic, hand-crafted spirit for the ages. We were lucky enough to sit down with her in between fermentations and distillations to talk about starting up a distillery from scratch, distilling, and nerding out on rum.
Why rum? Why New York?
So the story starts back when I was working at a hedge fund. I was part of a group of investors that were responsible for covering the consumer staples category — food, beverage, household goods, supermarket stocks. I kind of wound up developing a niche in global beer, wine, and spirits after a couple of good calls on some beer stocks.
In doing my research and investment analysis for those companies, I was watching what was happening and continues to happen in craft beer and what was at the time starting to happen in craft spirits. I was watching laws change on a state by state basis — laws that had basically been in existence since Prohibition — that were allowing for the proliferation of the industry from a regulatory standpoint.
I was also watching consumer trends. Consumers started looking for new products that were made with better ingredients but also had a story. I was really, really excited about what I was seeing. But, as someone who loves rum, I was a little disappointed that rum was kind of being neglected.