We took a trip to The Noble Experiment, the distillery in Williamsburg that produces Owney’s Rum and the only exclusive rum distillery in New York. Walking down an industrial street filled with street art and a furniture manufacturer, it’s easy to miss the beautiful tasting room and distillery that’s peeking out of a huge window just above eye level. The area is changing rapidly–art galleries with adjoining bars, and soon a coffee shop moving in. Landlords are holding out, giving short-term leases in the hopes that the neighborhood will be rezoned for residential.”Hipsters” and musicians will remember this area for the DIY music venues that paved the way: Death by Audio and Shea Stadium. The Noble Experiment moved in two years ago, subdividing a massive space once run entirely by the furniture company next door.
Something you’ll notice right away upon a visit to The Noble Experiment–it’s run entirely by women. The company was started in 2012 by Bridget C. Firtle, a former hedge funder who specialized in global alcoholic beverage companies. Following the crafts spirit movement closely, she saw potential in bringing rum back to America and to New Y0rk City. For a while, it was just Bridget–moving forklifts, climbing high on ladders to pour molasses, figuring out the science of the process, boxing up the bottles of rum. The name, The Noble Experiment, was the nickname for Prohibition. Obviously, Prohibition was a rather failed experiment but that hasn’t daunted Firtle, who has since hired 3 others to join the company.
The sugar cane molasses for Owney’s comes from Florida and Louisiana, one of the reasons the company can’t use the distillery license that allows them to operate the tasting room–yet. For that license, everything needs to be sourced from New York State–and you just can’t get molasses in the state. But the laws on small-business distilleries have relaxed a bit and Firtle hopes to have the distillery and tasting room open to tours and events by next spring. For some of the limited edition, smallest batch products, the company is using mint and rosemary grown in the backyard of the distillery.
Firtle talks about what distinguishes alcohol by the large companies versus the small distilleries: It’s “where you make your cuts off the still,” she says. “The art is where you like things to smell and taste. We’re collecting the purest the form of alcohol–smooth, less impurities.” And Owney’s only uses only three unique ingredients. First, non-GMO, Grade A batched molasses that’s not yet fully refined that has more characteristics of the original sugar cane. Next, a yeast strain selected specifically for the flavor impact it would have on the rum. And finally, good old New York City water, often joked as the secret to many New York City food icons like bagels and pizza.
And the name Owney’s? It’s the nickname of a notorious gangster named Owen Madden. During Prohibition, he was involved in the bootlegging business as a rum runner and ran The Cotton Club. He smuggled Caribbean rum to New York by way of the Rockaways, re-popularizing rum to Americans during Prohibition.
Besides the tasting room, Firtle hopes to get another fermentation tank to up the production. Currently, it maxes out at 5,000 bottles per year. Besides the current distributors in New York, Owney’s is expanding quickly to other states. You can also buy Owney’s online.