Bronx Distillery Serves Traditional Boricua Rum

The owners of the Port Morris distillery, William Valentín (left) and Rafael Barbosa (right), met as children in the Douglass Houses housing development in Manhattan. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario-La Prensa)

The owners of the Port Morris Distillery, William Valentín (left) and Rafael Barbosa (right), met as children in the Douglass Houses housing development in Manhattan. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario-La Prensa)

At first glance, the Port Morris Distillery in the Bronx seems to provide nothing more than the necessary materials to make liquor: empty bottles, a manual labeling device, barrels for aging, a modern still imported from Germany…up until then, everything looks normal. But then something appears that doesn’t fit in with the scene: a hammock rolled up in a corner.

“The hammock belongs to my Uncle Rafael, and we put it there so he would feel like he’s back in Puerto Rico,” explained Rafael Barbosa, 41, who together with his childhood friend William Valentín, 43, founded the business.

The hammock is the cornerstone of the existence of this unique place, which manufactures the popular Puerto Rican rum called “pitorro.”

Uncle Rafael, 64, doesn’t like to give out his last name and almost never lets anyone photograph him. Why?

Starting when he was a young boy, Rafael used to go to a mountain in Guayama where there was a hidden still next to a small stream and make pitorro in secret; so it makes sense that discussing his profession openly with strangers is not on his to-do list.

“My uncle would disappear for two days, sleep on the mountain in his hammock, and he would return with a jug full of this illegal rum, a very popular drink in Puerto Rico, especially at Christmastime,” said Valentín.

Barbosa and Valentín met in the Douglass Houses, a public housing complex in Manhattan. Barbosa was a caretaker with the New York City Housing Authority, and Valentín is an air conditioning mechanic. Barbosa has two sons ages 12 and 19, and Valentín has two daughters, 12 and 18. They are so close that both families always travel together to Puerto Rico.

“It was there that we learned about pitorro and Uncle Rafael’s secret recipe, which is made up of corn, apples, sugar, and honey,” Barbosa explained. “That day I went to the computer; I found out we could get distillery licenses, and between the two of us my friend and I wondered: Why not start a business in New York?”

“When we decided to open the distillery,” said Valentín, “it was difficult to convince Uncle Rafael to come work with us, but when we explained that here we could make pitorro legally, he livened up and decided to join us.”

The friends had a recording studio in Port Morris because Valentín is a singer, and they decided to sell it to invest in the enterprise. This area of the South Bronx could be considered the mecca of pitorro in New York since the Tirado distillery, which also produces the drink, is not far away.

Valentín said it took them two and a half years to get the project off the ground, and it cost more than $300,000.

“We had to hire a lawyer to obtain the two necessary licenses, one from the federal government and one from the state, which requires that you already have a location and equipment, and the raw material for making the drink has to come from New York State,” he emphasized.

The distillery produces “Pitorro Shine” at 750 milliliters a bottle, which sells for $30. A bottle of “Pitorro Añejo” costs $35. The alcohol content is 46 percent.

“We’re the only ones to age pitorro, something Uncle Rafael always wanted to do,” said Valentín. “We took a course, we bought barrels and we tried it. The result was fantastic.”

Although the distillery is able to manufacture more than 500 bottles a week, they are still introducing the product in the market; it can be found in 17 liquor stores and on the Internet.

“The tour is free. The participants come and help us distill pitorro, bottle it and label it,” said Barbosa. “They learn the distillation process, they try the products we have, and we tell them the history of this drink.” Although they still don’t earn enough income to hire additional staff, Barbosa stressed, “Our goal is to grow the business, sell the product in the local market, and eventually export it to Puerto Rico and other countries.”

Meanwhile, Uncle Rafael arrives, prepares his clandestine formula, turns on the still, and lies back in his hammock, just like he did on the mountain.

“He’s the one with the secret touch,” said Barbosa.

The process for making rum

It’s a strong kind of alcohol distilled in a secret way. It’s called “moonshine” in the United States and “guaro” in Honduras. Panamanians called it “chicha fuerte” and Cubans call it “chispetren.”

In Puerto Rico, clandestine pitorro (also called Ron Cañita) is prepared in a homemade still, which basically consists of a hot boiler and a bucket of cold water.

First, the molasses is heated and fermented in the boiler to evaporate the alcohol content. These vapors rise and pass through a special tube at the top of the boiler, which leads them to a container full of water. Once they pass through the winding tube inside the bucket of water, the vapors chill and finally condense, becoming pure rum.

Pitorro is illegal in Puerto Rico because those who make it don’t pay taxes on it, nor is the drink subject to rigorous quality control processes by the Puerto Rican and U.S. governments.

The formula also includes seasonal fruits, which soften the taste of the product, give it a more pleasant smell, and doesn’t result in a hangover.

Tasting and Tours

Every Friday starting at 4 p.m., Barbosa and Valentín offer samples at their bar decorated like the streets of Old San Juan, which is located at the distillery at 780 East 133rd St.

Tours can also be scheduled through their website, www.portmorrisdistillery.com

One Comment

  1. I’m looking to Purchase Ron Cana. I Heard U may have the Best one. R u still located on 133 st

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*