Like a bad breakup, it’s taken a long time for the U.S. to get over the Prohibition. While we’ve been able to legally drink at home again since the 1930s, the majority of spirits in the U.S. have been imported because high start up costs and death-defying licensing gauntlets have scared off most would-be domestic distillers. Local production has only made a real resurgence in the past two decades or so as brave entrepreneurs slowly begin to rebuild the industry. New York state is becoming one of the leaders of this new era of domestic distilling, mostly with an emphasis on liqueurs, gin, vodka and whiskey production. But what about rum?
Owney’s is one of the precious few rums produced entirely from domestic ingredients, and it’s made right in the heart of Bushwick, Brooklyn. It’s the first product introduced by the Noble Experiment, a company founded by native New Yorker Bridget Firtle, who gave up a cushy finance career to make spirits. I recently visited the distillery and sat down with this audacious impressario, and learned about the history and intricacies of producing home grown rum. Plus just how sticky a situation it can be to make it.
Amanda Schuster: So I know people are probably asking you this question all the time, but why rum?
Bridget Firtle: I think that rum’s a super versatile spirit that is generally under appreciated. There’s all these misperceptions about rum, people don’t know what to do with it, it comes from a lot of different places in the world and it’s loosely defined. The only definition for it is that it’s got to come from some form of the sugar cane plant… it’s hard to know what you’re getting unless you become educated on the different types of rum. It presents an opportunity to educate people and present what rum is. I’m also enthralled with the history of rum in this country, as it was the first thing we distilled here. The goal is to bring back domestic rum production again. I really do believe that rum is going to come back into popularity.
AS: Are you using a recipe that’s founding father’s-ish?
BF: Well, their molasses came from the Caribbean and I wanted a product that’s 100% domestic. Mine comes from sugar cane plantations in Florida and Louisiana, so that would be the biggest difference. Secondly, I’m using a different type of molasses. Mine is an all natural, Grade A, non-GMO, high sugar content [70%] vs. what most molasses-based rums are made of, which is black strap, which has much less sugar and is very high in other chemical content, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorous and other minerals. The sugar is imperative for making alcohol and starting fermentation… creating an ethanol-based spirit, which is super aromatic and flavorful on its own, better for white spirits. I like to think of [Owney’s] as between an agricole and a black strap. I wanted to create something unique that would get the best out of both styles. But you can’t really work with fresh sugar cane juice because it ferments on its own in three days! So unless you’re on a cane plantation and crush the cane, ferment and distill it right there, it doesn’t work. That’s why most rum is made from molasses, so you can ship it and store it. Though you can think of my molasses as a fresher type – something that hasn’t undergone refining. It still has a lot of the qualities of a [cane] juice.
AS: It sounds like those elements are very important to you. So did you set out to create something that would be a sort of healthy rum, as it were?
BF: Well, I’m a purist at heart. I’m into minimal ingredients. There are only three in Owney’s New York tap water, which I think is the best in the world…
AS: It certainly is!
BF: … call me biased… but it is actually chemically good for distilling. It’s NY water that’s been filtered through a standard water filter. So it’s that, the molasses I was discussing and a proprietary yeast strain that we have… minimal with no flavors, colorings or sugars added later. I wanted it to be reflective of our ingredients and our fermentation philosophy.
AS: You researched this process so well. But have you run into any unforeseeable problems here at the distillery?
BF: There have been a lot of spills. Molasses spills are not so pleasant… at all… (laughs)… very sticky and difficult to clean up. Oh, and the very first time I turned the still on… there’s a light in the back of the still… the lightbulb had broken, so we took the light cap off so it was just hanging there making a hole in the back at the top, I totally forgot about it and the still was on for about an hour when things began to boil. All of a sudden I see boiling hot mash just shooting out of the hole, not a huge hole, probably about two and a half inches in diameter…
AS: That’s enough…
BF: Right. And then it’s raining hot wash all over the place. I reacted in what was probably a stupid way and ran under to close the cap. I could have been badly burned. But I am quite careful otherwise. I mean, obviously it’s quite dangerous to operate these machines. The messiest mistakes happen when you rush, as with anything in life.
AS: Can you talk about the name?
BF: I was born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens. The house I grew up in had this beautiful bar in the basement…
AS: An actual speakeasy?
BF: When I was ten or eleven years old we found out from one of the neighbors on the block that it was indeed an active speakeasy during Prohibition. There’s a separate entrance that can be totally sealed off from the rest of the house. So I looked at that era for inspiration. Owney was the nickname of a gangster who grew up in Hell’s Kitchen, a Westie, and when Prohibition was enacted, he capitalized on the legislation. He was a speakeasy proprietor, but most endearing to me, he was a rum-runner. He had an estate in Rockaway, where I grew up, and he used to smuggle rum in from the Caribbean off the shores there. And it was the first time rum had a resurgence in popularity since Colonial times. Just due to the proximity of the Caribbean and Cuba, where people could leave the US to get a drink. Also, it was the last time we had a real distilling industry in the states. Albeit illicit, it was thriving!
AS: So start naming a whole line of products after gangsters?
BF: Yeah, gangsters!! Something New York-related and historic… it’s starting to come back now. Beer has a head start on us…
AS: Shame it’s still so hard to get a license.
BF: Right. it’s one of the only growing parts of the economy right now. The amount of tax money they make off us [distillers]… it’s very prohibitive. For every bottle that gets used for promotional purposes, $2.14 goes to the Federal government and about $2.00 goes to the city and state. Just for the right to be here. So for all the money coming back, plus the staff that would get hired, the jobs created… they should want to grant more licenses.
AS: Lastly, if there is someone you could have a drink with in your parents’ basement, who would it be?
BF: Well, obviously Owney! Though he was a dangerous guy… Oh, but I love my daiquiris. So a daiquiri with Hemingway.