THE NOBLE EXPERIMENT
Bridget Firtle runs a one-woman show of a peculiar kind: She owns, crafts liquor for, and guides tours at The Noble Experiment, a Brooklyn-based distillery that just opened this fall. She’s also a walking history book when it comes to America’s alcohol past (did you know rum was one of the causes of the American Revolution? We didn’t either). It seems she was destined for the role from birth: Owney, the namesake of her white rum, was a Prohibition-era bootlegger who formerly had a speakeasy in the basement of her childhood home.
While simultaneously washing glasses behind the bar of her noble and experimental establishment, Firtle talked with us about the art of making and drinking alcohol. Bottoms up!
How did you end up making rum for a living?
I used to work at a hedge fund, and I became the global alcoholic beverage analyst. I always dreamed of having my own distillery but thought it would be more of a retirement type thing. But I was looking for a new job in finance, and every opportunity that was available I was not excited about. With each passing interview this idea got louder and louder in my head, and I realized that if there was a time in my life to take a risk it was now. So I started writing a business plan in June of 2011, and that was basically the tipping point. I left my job at Christmas of 2011. I’m a native New Yorker from Rockaway Beach, so I left my loft in TriBeCa and the good life, moved back home with my parents, and have been full steam ahead since.
How did you learn all this?
A lot of reading. There are a lot of small, similar distilleries around the country, so I took their tours. I actually work with a consultant in Chicago, but it was also a lot of trial by error. There was a big learning curve once everything was set up in here, and I was here alone with my books trying to figure out what I was doing.
I never wanted to use the branding of that. However, from a cultural standpoint, there’s demand here for products like this, so that’s a great advantage. My family’s from Brooklyn and I come from a long line of Brooklyn-based business owners. Everyone has their own reasons for being here, because there are about six distilleries now in Brooklyn.
A lot of people seem to just stick to the commercial alcohols. How does one go about branching out?
My first piece of advice would be to talk to the bartender. I think you should always be trying different things to broaden your horizons, and look, if you’re in a bar you’re only committing to buying one drink. It’s not like you’re going to a liquor store and purchasing a full bottle of something you’ve never had before.
(Owney’s is served at The Rum House, The Green Grape, The Richardson, Tiny’s and the Bar Upstairs, Donna and Tooker Alley.)
How do you recommend drinking your rum?
I’m a purist now. I drink my white rum on the rocks. But I’m not expecting other people to do that. And it’s super versatile. My mission is to bring back the traditional daiquiri. I say that on my tours and everyone stares at me like, ‘What? After that whole lecture, she wants to drink it in a pink frozen thing with an umbrella at the top?’ Really a traditional daiquiri is 1.5 ounces of rum, an ounce of lime juice, and an ounce of simple syrup. Shaken and served up. It’s very simple, very classic.
How did you come up with the name The Noble Experiment?
It was the government’s nickname for Prohibition. I’m enthralled with the history of this industry in this country, and with each of my products I want to embrace that in one way or another. My inspiration for the company was, ‘Oh my god, we are the largest spirits market in the world, so why aren’t we making our own stuff?’ When I was forming the company I was thinking a lot about Prohibition, because it was the last time we actually had a homegrown spirits industry, although it was illicit.
It’s also my noble experiment.
Owney’s is on sale at various liquor stories in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Long Island, including Astor Wines & Spirits and Bowery & Vine. Retail price is around $35. The Noble Experiment offers tours on Saturdays at 2 and 4 p.m.