Bridget Firtle Takes Her Place in New York’s Distilling History (Guest Post by Thomas E. Harkins)

[All photos by Max Kelly]

[All photos by Max Kelly]

While Chris and I were the listed authors on Brooklyn Spirits, a third person was essential to our writing team: Thomas E. Harkins. Thomas wrote first drafts of many of the chapters in the book and was integral to the research as well. Chris and I have asked him to go through our source materials to shine a light on a few things that didn’t make the book and present them here as guest blog posts. Take it away, Tom! –Pete Fornatale

Now that Brooklyn Spirits’ has been on sale for a bit, everyone involved in the project is thinking two things. One is that the finished product is absolutely beautiful (thanks, Powerhouse!); another is that the interview and research phases yielded such an abundance of riches that there was no hope of ever fitting them all between the covers of a single volume.

One of my favorite chapters is “The Noble Experiment,” the title of which references both the name of CEO and founder Bridget Firtle’s distillery, and an old nickname for the National Prohibition Act of 1920.   Looking back over the notes and interview transcripts, I realized that the creator of Owney’s Original New York City Rum had a good deal more to say, and I think it is instructive to highlight some of her historical points. When our co-authors asked, “Why rum?” Firtle’s reply went beyond discussions of the libation, and took into consideration the whole socio-political history of rum. She said:

“There’s a history, such a rich history with rum distilling in this country; it was the first spirit we distilled. Most people don’t know that. We haven’t distilled rum here in a really long time. I thought it was about time we bring back rum distillation to the Northeast, more specifically New York.”

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Most sources trace the modern history of rum to the Caribbean during the 17th century. Some of those early barrels found their way up to the colonies, and rum caught on in popularity. Distilleries soon began popping up in New York and Boston and other prime locations. Within 60 years, New York was home to sixteen distilleries, and rum had become the favorite libation of the colonial era. That is to say, until the British imposed the Molasses Act of 1733, the first in a series of events that would lead to a decline in the popularity of rum and the rise of whiskey. The Molasses Act of 1733 fueled a wave of piracy and smuggling that rendered the law almost meaningless. Fast forward thirty-some years and the British doubled down with the Sugar Act of 1764, the enactment of which can be directly linked to the Revolutionary War. It is also important to acknowledge that the explosion of rum’s popularity led to a rapid expansion of the slave trade, one of the more ignoble facets of America’s history.

Post-War of 1812, molasses supplies grew scarce, and the popularity of whiskey outpaced that of rum. But American distilling enjoyed a remarkable period of stability, with more than a thousand New York State distilleries doing brisk business from 1825 until 1920, when Prohibition effectively killed New York’s distilling (and brewing) industries, and gave rise to organized crime in America. The so-called “noble experiment” lasted only 13 years, but its aftereffects lasted for decades. The thaw began with The Cranston Act of 1979, which legalized craft (and home) brewing. It took another 23 years, but legislation was finally passed in New York State in 2002 to license distilleries at the craft level. Firtle was only 17 at the time, but by 2012 her Noble Experiment, NYC, the first post-Prohibition rum distillery in New York State, was up and running. Soon thereafter, we all enjoyed our first tastes of Owney’s. It took 92 long years, but this fearless and pioneering young woman, born on the site of a former speakeasy, has taken her place in the rich history of New York distilling.

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