The Noble Experiment
An Homage to Prohibition or One Woman’s Jump into a New Enterprise?
Bridget Firtle did not grow up in a distilling family. She did not grow up with a history of moonshining. Instead, this Queens, NY native has two degrees in finance and started her professional life on a solid path in investment banking. However, when her investment career led her to researching the burgeoning craft spirits and beverage industries, she ended up wanting to join the movement rather than study it from afar. As Bridget puts it, her old job just didn’t feel tangible and she was ready for a change. Now, every day she finds herself making a product, bottling it, corking it, and going out to sell it. Her success is literally in and by her own hands.
The Noble Experiment was the organizing principle around Prohibition. It was an invitation to early 20th Century America to cast aside alcohol and embark on an spirits-free future. For Bridget Firtle, owner of The Noble Experiment Distillery (TNE) in Brooklyn, NY, it stands for her own bold move into a new, unproven path. TNE’s product, Owney’s Rum, is a reference to one of the entrepreneurs who emerged during America’s dalliance with Prohibition, Owen Madden, a gangster from Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood and noted rum runner who brought his product in through Queens. So there you have it. A Queens native, running her own rum named after a rum runner who used Queens as a staging ground for new opportunities. Both of these stories are intertwined by separate but similar noble experiments.
There are two words that best describe The Noble Experiment and the Owney’s Rum it produces: Simple and Finest. The process of making craft rum in the heart of one of Brooklyn’s industrial neighborhoods is quite simple. Owney’s is made with only three tangible ingredients – water, yeast, and molasses. The other two "additives" are time and patience.
The molasses is the finest the distillers at TNE can get their hands on, which means they use first-boiled molasses. Whereas many high quantity rums are made with “blackstrap” molasses, TNE uses first boiled sugar cane molasses. The differences are myriad. Blackstrap is a leftover product from sugar refining. Essentially, nearly all useable sugar has been removed from the boiled sugar cane juice and the blackstrap is what remains, with a residual sugar content of roughly 10%. The first boiled molasses that goes into Owney’s isn’t the byproduct of any other process. This molasses is 80% sugar.
TNE ensures that the characteristics of its molasses are carefully protected throughout the production process. The high sugar content ensures a fermentation that is quite healthy and yields a mash with a clean flavor profile. The fermentation is longer than most rums and executed under careful temperature control. Fermentation continues over five days to achieve high ester content. The high ester content provides the aroma, flavor, and overall character in the final product.
When the fermented mash is ready, it is then put through a slow 7-10 hour low-rectification, low-boil distillation. The rum that emerges from the still is a relatively low 164 proof. By taking extra time at every stage, TNE is able to protect all of the subtle, short chain esters that give Owney’s its distinct and delicate flavor.
Owney’s striking bottle design was carefully crafted and, like the rum it contains, is unique. It took six months of research and walking the aisles at countless liquor stores before TNE could develop a design that would stand out among all the other bottles on the shelves.
Now, more than two years into running her experiment, Bridget Firtle still feels the excitement of making her own product and introducing it to new customers every day. She’s been able to hire some people to help run the day to day activities, but she is still deeply involved in the process. She didn’t enter this trade to manage spreadsheets and do paperwork. Even as her product grows and her team expands, she continues to find solace in those quiet moments when she can be in her distillery and make her product with her own hands.