In October 2012, Bridget Firtle was working alone at her East Williamsburg distillery, The Noble Experiment, emptying stills and filling bottles—solo. She was producing the first run of her Owney’s Original, a white rum the New York native had spent a year and a half researching and developing and then eight more weeks perfecting—again, alone. She was, as some have described her, a one-woman rum distillery.
Though, now, Firtle doesn’t seem to linger much on the challenge of those early days (actually, two years of solo rum distilling), and she’s incredibly humble about the major changes and accolades her brand has seen since that first run.
“It’s been an unbelievable learning experience over the past three years,” Firtle says. “Our business has grown very, very nicely.”
An understatement, to be sure. Since its inception, Owney’s—a white rum made simply from non-GMO sugarcane molasses, filtered New York City water, and a proprietary yeast and named after famed NYC rum-runner Owen “Owney” Madden—has garnered high praise from hospitality luminaries and has been featured prominently at tiki nights throughout the city. That’s not to mention the acclaim the liquor’s gotten from the spirits industry; most recently, the Owney’s Original received a 93 at the Ultimate Spirits Challenge, placing the rum among the ranks of other well-regarded, long-established, and even high-end spirits of its kind.
It’s safe to assume her product’s esteem in the industry is why Firtle’s no longer hand-corking or -labeling her custom-made bottles on her own these days. About a year ago, she took on three staffers to assist her in the distillery, and in the next month she will begin training a team to represent TNE across the country now that the brand, over the last half-year, has expanded into nine new markets outside of New York State, including Florida, California, and Illinois, as well as London.
This steady growth is particularly impressive, especially as, Firtle points out, craft distillers like herself continue to navigate the spirits industry and determine how their products will thrive in it.
“It’s very difficult to hang on and make money in this business because it’s been a heavily consolidated industry that has a lot of power behind the big brands,” Firtle says.
Despite the hooch’s prominent role in American distilling history—rum was the first spirit distilled in the United States, in the mid-17th century—and the growing trend of tiki cocktails, smaller-scale rum operations still seem to struggle in the overall rum market. Though Firtle says she sees consumers who are interested in and want craft rums, she estimates that about 70 percent of that larger market is still dominated by dorm favorites Bacardi white and Captain Morgan spiced rums—and those aren’t exactly representative of the quality and wide variety of styles in the category.
“It’s why so many people have never experienced a well-made rum and what you can do with it,” she says. “Although that can sometimes be a big challenge because there’s so much misperception around the category, it’s an opportunity to change people’s way of thinking.”
And Firtle’s aiming to take on that task with The Noble Experiment’s new bar, the most recent addition to her burgeoning business. Affectionately (and unofficially) dubbed the Daq Shack, the distillery-adjacent tasting room quietly opened this past weekend, serving up daiquiris, a daily punch, local canned beers… and nothing more. It’s a small menu, but for good reason.
“We really want to obviously highlight the rum we make here and not just have a full bar and have a generic cocktail list,” Firtle says. “[The bar is] going to be super focused on educating people on Owney’s and how to use it and how it’s made.”
To do that, the distillery owner brought on an ace bartending team, including Brian Miller and Jelani Johnson from Tiki Mondays at Pouring Ribbons and other rum devotees Firtle sourced from a recent distillery-sponsored rum class. Owing to her company’s small size, Firtle says, all will serve as brand ambassadors of sorts behind the bar.
For those simply seeking a well-made rum cocktail or a cold can of Brooklyn beer, though, the Daq Shack, located on Meadow Street in East Williamsburg in a row of old warehouses and fresh businesses, is still a cozy place to belly up and hang out. The aesthetic of the tasting room, while industrial with its black, white, and wooden accents, is warm and inviting, and the space’s center communal table is perfect for discussing with friends the finer points of rum production or just the latest Mets win. Basically, the Daq Shack is like your favorite neighborhood bar (except it primarily serves rum) that Firtle also hopes will be a destination spot going forward.
With so much happening in The Noble Experiment’s present, the distillery owner hasn’t revealed many firm plans for what’s in the brand’s future. She mentions the prospect of more rum-distilling and cocktail classes going forward, though she doesn’t disclose anything concrete. One certainty, though: TNE will not move into other spirits categories—it will always be a rum-only distillery. She does share, however, that the brand may release new expressions of its renowned Owney’s Original or one-off seasonal products—just not any time soon. Again, it all comes down to focus.
“[It’s] kind of like an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ type of thing,” Firtle says. If her successes over the past years are any proof, that’s a pretty genius strategy.
23 Meadow Street, East Williamsburg