Meet The Distiller Who’s Bringing Rum Back To America

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.

Yeah. It’s a little ironic that everyone is so laser focused on whiskey as this ultimate American spirit when it was always rum that fueled early America.

I thought it was ironic because so many of these distilleries were embracing the history of spirits in this country, and rum was America’s first spirit that no one was talking about. I saw an opportunity in making American rum again. I was specifically drawn to New York. New York City was the first place in this country where we distilled rum, in the 1660s. And there’s a bunch of different historical sort of significance to New York and rum. So all of those things combined got me to jump ship and build a distillery here in Brooklyn.

Once you decided you wanted to get into distilling what was your first step?

The day I was inspired to try and make a go of it, I started writing a business plan. I had to flesh out the idea and look prepared to raise some money to be able to actually execute it.

A distillery seems like a huge operation to get up and running. Walk us through the process.

I started writing the business plan in June of 2011. I didn’t distill anything here until August of 2012. So there was a lot of research that comprised the second half of 2011. A lot of trying to find consultants, which were basically nonexistent. Visiting distilleries, taking some classes here and there when I could, reading everything on the internet possible, sourcing manufacturers for the equipment. And then, of course, we have architects and engineers to help me design the space and make sure we had the appropriate utilities. And then we started construction.

We started building the space out in March of 2012. Throughout the beginning of 2012 and throughout the construction process I got as nerdy as I could with rum, tasting different styles and varieties, and coming up with a vision for the product.

That sounds like a monumental undertaking in-and-of-itself. So when did you finally get to distill some rum?

I started actually having the ability when everything was complete here, construction-wise in the summer of 2012. Then I spent August, September, and October working the kinks out and perfecting the recipe. And we started selling in October of 2012.

What inspired your recipe?

The inspiration for the actual liquid was to develop a unique white rum with a lot of depth, complexity, and character without adding anything back at the end of distillation. So, a very purist mentality where we source really good ingredients and actually think about what happens during mashing, fermenting, and distilling to exploit the natural flavors of those ingredients.

Where are you drawing your molasses from?

Our feedstock is an all-natural, non-GMO Grade A sugarcane molasses. It’s a first boil, or high-test molasses, and has about 80 percent sugar in it.

I’m guessing no one is making molasses in New York at the moment?

No, it comes from independent sugarcane farmers in Florida and Louisiana.

What’s your distillation process?

The process starts with a mash. We mash some filtered hot New York water here and our molasses. Then we add our proprietary yeast strain. It ferments for at least six days at 75 degrees. The tanks are temperature-controlled and close-top for fermentation. We have a lot of esters develop during those six days. And then we do one batch distillation at a time in a pot-column hybrid still. That’s a 265-gallon pot still with a six bubble cap plate column attached to it. We run it through that process once, making our heart’s cut which is a 165 proof distillate.

Do you feel like there’s a benefit to doing the combo pot-column still as opposed to a pot then a column double distillation?

Definitely. Our still was custom designed. We didn’t want a huge 25-foot column and we didn’t want just a pot. So we thought a small column with a pot would allow us to rectify the spirit to a nice level, but also not strip it of its flavor.

Walk us through why the combo is the way to go.

Basically, the still is meant to make the spirit very palatable, but also not strip out the flavor. A lot of times in column distillation, the goal is to get yield and to get to a neutral straight ethanol. And then straight pot distillation spirit is very, very rough in an unaged form. But those rough distillates interact really nicely with the barrel over time –adding depth and complexity and flavor.

And you’re making a white rum that doesn’t touch oak, so it’s basically going straight to the bottle after blending?

Right, we blend it down from the heart that’s 165 proof to 80 proof. And then we bottle and you drink it.

There’s a lot of depth to white rum that people really don’t give it credit for.

Unfortunately, a lot of commercially produced white rums taste like vodka. Which is fine. It’s just, rum is not vodka. So a lot of times white rum gets a bad rap. But there are, to your point, a lot of well-made white rums out there. I just don’t think the general consumer knows about them yet.

What’s the flavor profile of your rum?

Our flavor is actually quite interesting. The aroma is super sweet, lots of cane, lots of banana, and very, very floral as well. And then the actual flavor of the rum is well-balanced. You definitely get the banana and the molasses notes that are very interestingly balanced with this sort of grassy earthy funk to it. So it’s got some good body to it.

That sounds really delicious. It’s a funny market for rum right now. Bourbon is blowing up (and whiskey in general). And then you also have Cuba re-opening up, even though there’s still the big trademark problem with Havana Club in the US. Do you feel like this is just the beginning of rum’s reawakening?

Definitely. I’ve developed more and more into a passionate rum lover since I started the business. Still, the initial precipice for actually founding the business was that I believed there is a market for rum expanding. Yes, rum was always my favorite spirit, but I believed there was going to be a resurgence for rum consumption. I will say that people have been saying that for probably 15 years now. But in the past year or two, there’s a lot more interest in the category.

What changed in the last year or two?

I’ve been hand-selling this product for almost five years now. For the first two and a half years, every buyer was like, ‘Are you gonna make whiskey or gin?’ And now, it’s been, ‘Oh, awesome! Not another whiskey or gin.’

What’s going to get rum into consumer hands more quickly?

Getting the consumer onboard is getting the bartenders and retail buyers to stock the shelves and talk about it. And I’m seeing more and more interest from a bartender perspective and from retail buyers.

There’s also some groups within the rum industry that are doing the best they can to educate and advocate for the category as well. Unfortunately, education of a consumer takes forever and costs a lot of money. So it’s like one person at a time, one day at a time. But I do see, from a firsthand basis, that it is impactful having those one-on-one interactions with people and educating them.

You said you traveled around and became a bit of a rum nerd. Did you make it to Havana (Havana Club) and Cataño (Bacardi)?

I’ve been to both of those distilleries. Well, unfortunately, I did not get to the Havana distillery. I got to that little museum center for Havana Club. But I definitely got to taste a lot of awesome Cuban rum while I was down there. We also get a lot of rums on the New York market, which is great. My retirement goal is to just sail around the Caribbean, drinking rum.

That retirement plan sounds awesome. What were some of the things you learned on the road?

It was really just about tasting rums, learning about the different styles, and the different regions. We get rum from 50 different countries imported to the US. So, it was about learning which styles I liked the best and then trying to understand how those styles were made. And then even further, narrowing it down to what nuances within those styles I liked. So, a lot of the inspiration for Owney’s came from my two favorite styles of rum. Which are Jamaican and Agricole.

Agricole is fantastic. It’s sort of like the forgotten drink that needs to make a comeback.

Unfortunately, it’s very niche. But, you know, people’s tastes are changing and they like more flavor and more intricacy. So hopefully, over time it will gain some traction as well.

What’s your take on the alternative forms of rum where sugar beets are used, like Czech Tuzemský?

Literally, the only definition of how to make rum in this country is that it has to come from sugarcane, so…

My opinion on that is that’s not rum. In my mind, rum is so challenging as it is because there’s so much variety that’s already very loosely defined.

It’s muddying the waters so to speak.

Exactly. And it’s already a muddy water. There’s already white, dark, aged, spiced, you know. Dark could be aged in a barrel. It could also just have color added to it. Then there’s pot distillation. There’s column distillation. And to try and get people to understand the category better, we’re trying to put some framework around it so they understand what they’re buying and what to order, and how to order it.

Are you planning to age and release a darker rum?

It’s definitely something that we constantly think about and evaluate. And hopefully, one day, once we have significant resources to start an aging program, we’ll have the opportunity to do that. But for now, we’re so excited with what we have, that we think it’s best to just keep focusing and growing this one product and introduce it to people.

What’s the best way to enjoy your rum — cocktail, straight, on the rocks, all of the above?

I personally drink it on its own, typically neat unless it’s really hot out. Then I’ll add a couple of ice cubes and a lime. But I do understand that I’m probably not necessarily the consumer that I’m going for. My favorite cocktail and the way I also really personally love to drink the rum is in a classic daiquiri. And that’s kind of another uphill battle that we are moving one rock at a time — trying to free the daiquiri from this misperception that it has to be super sugary, frozen drink.

Yeah. I’ve fought the same battle bartending. People would order a daiquiri and you’d bring them a classic daiquiri and they’d look at you really upset because they’re expecting a hurricane glass filled with sugary strawberry mush and not a coupe with a delicate cocktail in it.

A lot of times here, people won’t order a daiquiri because they think they’re getting that.

You have to convince them, ‘No. It’s good. I promise.’

We actually serve them at events at the distillery here. And people are mindblown. One day, the dream is to have that be the way that people go up to the bar and order Owney’s. I really think the classic daiquiri should be ordered in the same way as a manhattan or an old fashioned or a martini because it has that significance and history and, in my mind, the status of the classics.

What’s your recipe?

The way we like our daiquiris is two ounces of Owney’s, three-quarters amount of fresh lime juice, and half an ounce of simple syrup.

Nice. That sounds perfect.

We bring those wherever we go.

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