I love when I meet new people and they ask me, “So, what do you do?” To which I reply, “I founded a boutique distillery and make rum in Brooklyn.” It’s the best icebreaker. Naturally, the surprised follow-ups ensue…”What? How? When? Why?”
This is Chapter 1 of my rum story.
Like most American distillers, I didn’t start my career by making spirits. My academic and professional background was in business and finance. After my MBA, I went and found myself a very coveted position as an investment analyst at a New York-based hedge fund. As part of the Consumer Staples team, I supported portfolio management for food, beverage, household goods, supermarkets, and the like. Early on, I had a few successes investing in beer stocks and quickly developed a niche in the total global alcoholic beverage category. Hey, if you have to grind it out working for a hedge fund, investing in booze ain’t so bad!
I spent most of my days doing research and analysis both behind an Excel spreadsheet and in the field talking to trade, trying to get a real, live pulse on the market. I had closely followed some of the trends in craft beer, which opened my eyes to the small and burgeoning craft spirits movement (at the time, there were probably 50 small American distilleries, mainly located on the West Coast). I was enamored from a distance, sort of envious of these pioneering entrepreneurs helping to bring back a dormant industry. They were still too small to really threaten the big companies we were investing in, but my interest was piqued.
Of course, some of my “research” involved spending time at establishments that were selling the products we were investing in. It was the beginning of the resurgence in modern cocktail culture and I was experimenting with all sorts of delicious drinks I had never had before. My prior drinking experience had mainly been flavored vodka and cheap tequila, beer, and wine from college days. One night doing “my job” I got adventurous and ordered a rum cocktail, a Hemingway Daiquiri, something I had never heard of before. WOW! WHAT. IS. THIS? This is not rum and Coke and this is not rum with frozen, fake sugar. This is perfection, I thought. And thus my love affair with rum began….
I started exploring the vast and diverse world of rum from interesting cocktails to various regional rum styles, moving beyond the commercially produced liquid I had been exposed to as a teenager. Rum at night, finance during the day, repeat. I came to learn of the rich American history of rum distilling along the way.
In the beginning of 2011, I was doing some soul-searching. I had just about reached my growth potential at the hedge fund, so I started to envision the next step of my finance career. I loved small business, private companies, strategic management and start-ups—I knew getting into venture capital investing would be my next move. I had dreamed of doing my own thing one day, so being close to entrepreneurs made all the sense in the world. After many a networking session, lunch meeting, and coffee interview, I was increasingly uninspired with the job search and felt defeated. Then one morning in June, I was watching a TED talk at my desk. (Not doing my job? Oops.) The talk was a lecture by a professor at Stanford to MBA students about the venture capital world. His thesis to the students was simple: “What gives you the credibility to guide entrepreneurs and make decisions on whether or not to fund their companies? You have no operational experience. Get out there, start your own business, don’t be afraid to fail! Then come back to VC if you so choose….”
It was my “aha” moment! All things in my life seemed to converge as I was sitting there: Investing. Business. Rum. American Craft Distilling. A perfect storm of a love of rum, a trend in American distilling driven by changing legislation and a new consumer, the romanticism of history, and entrepreneurial dreams. And just like that I got a vision to bring rum distilling back to my hometown (and its birthplace in colonial America), New York City. Since that moment, I haven’t looked back.
I started writing my business plan that day to combine my passion with what I believed to be a white space opportunity in the American distilling market. I put a down payment on a still in September even though I didn’t have the money to pay the balance (it wasn’t going to get here until April anyway!). By Christmas of 2011, I thought I had a solid plan and enough money from friends (old college buddies, colleagues, etc.) so I jumped ship from a super comfy job, packed up my loft in TriBeCa and moved back to Queens with my parents (thanks Mom and Dad!) to pursue this vision. Yeah, they thought I was crazy, but I was only 27 so I figured I could take the risk and redirect my life if things went south.
I broke ground on the distillery on Meadow Street in Brooklyn, New York, in March of 2012. After a mind-numbing, hoop-jumping experience with contractors, government, landlords, and city officials, we were licensed and fully operational by August of 2012. I realize in retrospect that we executed fairly quickly, but at the time it felt like an eternity. It became time for the real fun to start—fermenting and distilling! Over the previous 15 or so months, while managing the financing and construction of the distillery, I went in deep with my rum education. I began to really understand and learn the production-related nuances of the various styles within the category, in order to hone in on what kind of rum I wanted to create. I was inspired by naturally flavorful white rums, specifically earthy agricoles and high ester content, funky Jamaican rums. The decision became clear to distill a very interesting, flavorful, white rum without using any additives. I really wanted to change consumer perception of white rum and how to enjoy it.
I spent August, September, and the beginning of October tinkering away at the distillery using various grades of American sugarcane molasses and specifically curated yeast strains. By mid-October, I had produced a rum that I was really proud of and was ready to take to the trade. I had no real relationships with any buyers at the time, so I went door to door with a bottle of Owney’s in my purse begging people to give me the time of day. “Just make a Daiquiri with it, please!” Before too long, I had some orders and was distributing around New York City out of the trunk of my car.
The rest is blurry history.
Fast forward to today—it’s been a long, sometimes painful, and sometimes exhilarating roller coaster, but over the past six years, along with a tiny, killer team, we have been able to develop a small brand with a loyal following. We are now available in all 50 states. We released an Overproof three years ago. We just launched a new blended rum using Owney’s Original and a cask strength 2-year aged rum from the Dominican Republic that we imported. I moved out of my parents’ house (took four years, though). I live each day to make the classic Daiquiri (with Owney’s!) a real call for the masses. There is a lot of work to do premiumize rum and educate the consumer. To me, it starts with authenticity. We will continue to do our part and strive to produce high-quality, unique rums, using the power of our small distillery and story to introduce them to the world one consumer at a time.
We brought rum production back to New York City for the first time in over 90 years. If that’s not a solid beginning to a modern, rum-soaked love story, I don’t know what is.