Hyperbole is such an ingrained part of the way we describe everything these days—The best dinner I’ve ever eaten! This week!—that when you hear something that sounds really staggering, it can be easy to brush off.
So, while watching Bridget Firtle in action at the East Williamsburg headquarters of her one-woman rum distillery, The Noble Experiment, it takes a little time to realize that the place is truly just that: a one-woman rum distillery.
The initial run of her Owney’s white rum—around 23,000 bottles—was distilled, labeled, hand-corked, and eventually distributed entirely by Firtle herself. Well, alongside the occasional guest. “I have a bartender friend who comes in one day a week; I drag my parents and sister here on the weekends to help me label; there have been a few random volunteers,” she says laughing, sitting at the in-house bar she’s been using for a popular series of tastings.
But the small-scale approach is not without benefits. “Because we do everything by hand, I’m able to distill it at very high alcohol by volume and only keep the good stuff. Bigger distillers never get rid of anything,” Firtle says, happily launching into production details (as a white rum, Owney’s is 100 percent molasses-based), the pros and cons of buying one’s own bottle mold (she ultimately decided in favor), the benefits of the formidable stills she ordered in from Germany, rum’s spotty, crucial role in American history, and its underappreciated brilliance as a versatile cocktail base—think classic daiquiris, Tiki drinks, anything you’d want to sip outside on a hot day.
Yes, Bridget Firtle knows more about rum than anyone you have ever met. As a former global alcoholic beverage analyst and investor in the financial sector (“I was tired of doing something intangible, and this is the complete opposite—I’m making something with my hands and selling it,” she says), Firtle also grew up in a Rockaway Beach house whose basement bar once served as an active Prohibition-era speakeasy. Hence, the name of both the company (“The Noble Experiment” was a popular nickname for the not-so-popular 18th Amendment) and the rum, so called for notorious rum runner Owney “The Killer” Madden.
With a new blend currently aging in barrels, the season for daiquiris looming, and a steadily growing list of liquor stores and cocktail menus pledging their allegiance to Owney’s (Huckleberry Bar and the newly opened Marietta are among its fans), she may make rum runners of all of us.
Photo by Austin McAllister