- The Noble Experiment in Brooklyn, NY is New York City’s first rum-only distillery since before Prohibition.
- Founder Bridget Firtle named Owney’s rum after a famed New York rum runner and gangster, Owen Madden.
- We visited The Noble Experiment distillery to see how it makes its signature rum.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: You might not guess it, but here, on an empty street in Brooklyn, there is a rum distillery. Founded in 2012, The Noble Experiment is New York City’s first rum-only producer since Prohibition. We got a peek inside to see how they’re bringing rum back to the Big Apple after nearly a century.
Bridget Firtle: We mash everything by hand. We measure everything out by hand. We pump everything from the mash tank to the fermenters.
Narrator: That’s Bridget Firtle, the founder and head distiller at The Noble Experiment. She taught herself how to distill rum by watching videos and reading books.
Firtle: One-hundred per cent of the distillation process is done by hand as well. We pick and choose specifically what distillate we want in terms of flavour profile, proof, and aroma.
Narrator: After two years of research, Bridget began experimenting on stills she imported from Germany. It took her about three months to come up with the recipe for Owney’s, her signature rum.
Owney’s is made with just three ingredients: New York City tap water, molasses, and yeast. The molasses comes in from Florida and Louisiana. One batch of rum takes about 300 litres of molasses. The water and molasses are mixed together and heated in a process known as mashing. The liquid is cooled and the yeast is added in. The three ingredients are fermented in 75-degree cold tanks for six to eight days.
During fermentation, the yeast turns the sugars into alcohol and esters, which are essentially the flavour profile. Throughout the process, Bridget checks for pH levels and specific gravity so she can see just how much of the sugar was actually converted to alcohol. By the end, there’s no sugar remaining. The resulting wash is pumped into a pot-column still, where a process called low rectification distillation occurs.
Firtle: We make our hearts cut at about 164 proof, which accounts for more heavy alcohol molecules and more flavour profile in the distillate, as opposed to a neutral cane spirit or a pure ethanol spirit.
Narrator: That 164 proof is blended back in with New York City tap water to get to 80 proof, or 40% alcohol by volume. The finished product is then bottled up, and finally, one by one, the team labels the bottles. The whole process takes between eight and 10 days from start to finish, and it’s a process that hasn’t been legally attempted in New York City in nearly 100 years.
Commercial rum distilling first appeared in the United States on Staten Island, New York, in 1664. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, it expanded up and down the Eastern Seaboard until the Sugar Act slowed American rum production in 1764.
By the early 1800s, rum distilling had regained its footing, and producers in New York City popped up next to sugar refineries. But then came a perfect storm: the War of 1812, the Civil War, and, finally, Prohibition, taking effect in 1920, ultimately toppled the legal rum industry in New York City.
During Prohibition, thirsty and desperate New Yorkers turned to rum produced in the Caribbean, where the spirit was first distilled in the 17th century. Gangsters, nicknamed rum runners, would drop anchor off the coast of New York and smuggle the illicit Caribbean rum into the city. Rum running went on until the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. But rum distilling wouldn’t return to New York City for another 80 years.
Firtle: I had this aha moment where I’m like, I see American distilling, I see crafts beer, I see this industry growing and I think that there should be a place for rum in it and I think that rum is being neglected within it.
Narrator: Bridget is a born and bred New Yorker. She grew up in a house with a speakeasy in the basement in Rockaway, Queens. She started her career on Wall Street, but in 2011, she saw an opportunity. No one was making rum in New York City. So she quit her high-paying finance job, moved back in with her parents, and took a gamble on the city’s first rum-only distillery in nearly a century.
Firtle: My mum thought I was crazy, leaving this successful dream job on Wall Street to go drive a forklift around a distillery and make rum.
Narrator: To pay homage to the city’s rum roots, Bridget named her rum Owney’s after notorious New York rum runner and gangster Owen Madden.
Firtle: I’m like, hey, rum hustler had an estate in my hometown, badass New Yorker, OK, this makes sense. Like, we’ll go with that, he’s our inspiration.
Narrator: And Bridget’s gamble paid off. Owney’s rum won multiple awards from the New York International Spirits Competition and the San Francisco Spirits Competition. And Bridget herself was even put on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list.
Today, Bridget and her team make three kinds of rum, and they have the capacity to fill 240,000 bottles a year. But she’s a small-batch distiller, working to introduce New York rum to an already well-established category. Two brands, Bacardi and Captain Morgan, control the majority of market share in the US rum industries. And in 2018, rum sales dipped by 1% across the board, lagging behind other spirits, such as tequila. But high-end brands like Owney’s have been saving the rum category. The premium rum segment has grown by 57% in the last five years.
Firtle: The American rum category is dominated by literally two liquids that are commercially made, and I really wanted to help use a local product and my story and a liquid to change perception on what rum is.
Narrator: And she’s doing just that in the city that needed a little reminder of its rum roots.
Firtle: I had this dream, this vision, to bring rum distilling back to New York, make a really interesting, flavorful, and complex white rum. Seven years later, people finally understand the concept of making rum and what I’m doing here, and what I’m trying to do in sort of leading a rum revolution in the US again, and so it’s been real fun journey. Cheers.
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