In 2012, Bridget Firtle, left behind a well-paid job at a hedge fund to start The Noble Experiment, one of the only rum distilleries to operate in New York since Prohibition. Today at the age of 31, her Owney's rum can be found in 11 states and 4 countries. The secret? A great product, a great story, and a market that is looking for a hand-crafted alternative to Bacardi’s and Captain Morgan.
HM: Where did you get the idea to start a rum distillery?
BF: I founded the company back in 2012 after working on Wall Street for almost 5 years. I was a research and investment analyst at a hedge fund, where I weaseled my way into becoming the global alcoholic beverage analyst. As I was research beer and spirit equities I was also watching what was happening on the small scale – the craft beer wave and the explosion in the spirits industry, which had been dead for almost 100 years.
At the same time I was frustrated with the lack of rum production while other spirits were having a resurgence. I fell in love with the idea of starting a rum distillery and the romanticism of the history of rum, which had a huge presence historically in America – from the first rum distillery built on Staten Island in the 1660s to Prohibition to World War II?
HM: What came next?
BF: In June 2011, I started writing the business plan, while I hold onto the paycheck for as long as I can. I jump ship at Christmas time, move out of my loft in Tribeca, knock on my parents' door in Rockaway Beach, Queens, and say, "I'm here. I wasn't kidding." I start building the distillery in East Williamsburg in March or of 2012, from the ground up, using my personal savings and a little bit of money from friends and family. In August, I finished construction and in October I sold my first bottle.
HM: How did you know what you were doing?
BF: I was on a mission. I had no formal training but a couple of the distilleries that came before me were doing crash courses in how to build a distillery. So I went to a three-day crash course and I thought I could pull it off. Then I did a ton of research. While doing research into production I also did research into the recipe. We use a one-of-a-kind feedstock which is a non-GMO, grade A, first-boil sugar cane molasses, sourced domestically from Florida and Louisiana. Grade A means our molasses has about 80 percent sugar content before fermentation versus most rum that is made from blackstrap molasses which only has 20 to 40 percent sugar content prior to fermentation. We just got awarded 93 points at the Ultimate Spirits Challenge, which means that our rum is considered excellent and highly recommended.
HM: How did you get the word out?
BF: For the first two years I was a one-woman show so I was doing everything by myself. I spent days and nights in the distillery and then I went knocking on doors to sell it. Early on I participated in a slow food event and met a writer there who wrote about me for Edible Brooklyn and I had a friend who was a writer for Huffington Post and then it just grew from there. A lot of people want to write about this so there is constant interest in providing content. I've never had a publicist.
HM: How is the business doing today?
BF: We are now in 11 states and 4 countries – the United Kingdom, Norway, Singapore, and Hong Kong.
I have a team of 14 people across the country – one person who helps me with production, a part-time production assistant, a bunch of brand ambassador sales people across the country, and five people at the bar, which we opened a few months ago.
HM: A bar? Why?
BF: At the end of last year, the governor signed a bill called the Craft Act and it gave distillers of certain license classes the ability to apply for a bar license so we did so immediately. We opened our doors on August 13th and we're open Tuesday through Sunday and for private events. And we're starting a big educational push here, where the bartenders teach classes on tikis, how to make toddy's and punches, rum history, etc…
I think having the bar will be super helpful for us for cash-flow purposes. It’s a really brutal industry – its super, super challenging for a small company to play in an industry that is dominated by major global conglomerates.
HM: Where would you like the company to be in six months?
BF: We are focused on how we are going to double New York while growing new markets even as we remain a small independent company with limited resources. It takes a long time to build a brand like we want to do it, which is slowly and right so that there are reorders and velocity.
HM: If you had $25 million, what would you do with it?
BF: If I had $25 million I wouldn't want to go through a traditional marketing strategy or traditional media play. If I had more money I would hire more people to do exactly what we're doing which is telling the story, getting out there, getting it in front of consumers, and being as real and as authentic as we are. The biggest companies can launch a $50 million dollar brand that will be dead on arrival.
HM: What’s it like being the only woman in New York to own a distillery?
BF: I hate that question. When are we going to stop talking about that? People tell me to play it up for marketing purposes, but it feels so gimmicky and unnatural. My mom brought us up to believe we could do anything. I was the only woman in a 20-person hedge fund who wasn't in an administrative role and I was 20 years younger than everyone.
HM: Do you have an exit strategy?
BF: It’s too soon to tell. It’s going to depend on what happens with the business and what I want personally. If I'm still as excited about it in 5 years, in 50 years, that's great; it will still be mine. If I decide it's not for me anymore than I will evaluate strategies.
HM: Are you still living with your parents?
BF: I'm couch-surfing, so technically yes. I thought it was going to be for one year and now we are at four years. Every time we get to a point where I’m like, “I can start giving myself something,” it's more important to invest in the business. Having come from a career where I could have anything I wanted – fancy restaurants, fancy vacations, a luxury vehicle, a really nice apartment – it gets old. I really want this business to continue to thrive. That's my sole focus.