It may be the Puerto Rican version of moonshine, but pitorro is creating a buzz — in more ways than one — in the South Bronx, where Port Morris Distillery has been making this potent drink since 2010.
Childhood friends Ralph Barbosa, 41, and William Valentin, 43, launched Port Morris Distillery (PMD) after visiting Puerto Rico on vacation. Armed with a dream, Master Distiller Tio (Barbosa’s uncle Rafael Rodriguez) and a $60,000 budget, PMD is drawing amazing street traffic from celebrities, old-school folks and millennials in search of something unique.
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“Our families thought we were nuts, but stood by us,” said Barbosa, who counts his wife Miriam, an educator, and Valentin’s family members as staff.
The only professional experience they had with making spirits was drinking. But, after visiting Puerto Rico on a vacation, they decided they wanted to do something to honor their culture.
Pitorro is a cultural spirit based on sugarcane, and it is created throughout the Caribbean, Central America and South America. It has names like Jamaica shine, clarén in the Dominican Republic, guaro in Honduras, cachaça in Brazil and pisco in Peru.
An old-school approach
Rodriguez’s old-school approach, perfected in the hills of Guayama, is to measure everything by eye and taste. Pour your homemade libation onto the ground, light a match to it and watch it burn, all the while noticing its color and how long it burns. This is a test of quality and whether the distillate is tainted or not.
Rodriguez was persuaded to leave Puerto Rico, join PMD and oversee production after the guys tested and showed how perfectly consistent his homemade spirit measured on a hydrometer at 92 proof. ‘That’s the history of our 92 proof!” Barbosa said.
Once onboard, Rodriguez decided he wanted to age pitorro in wood-cast barrels. PMD‘s 80 proof anejo is cured by resting the pitorro in wood-cast barrels for less than two years.
“Our pitorro is created with all the detail of a fine wine, but it hits you with a fuller effect,” Barbosa said. The taste attracts drinkers of aged whiskey, rum and tequila, as well as those who like mixed drinks. In Puerto Rico, it is mixed into coquito, the local eggnog.
Everything at PMD is handcrafted. Rodriguez’s recipe is distinctive. He prefers to prolong fermentation and turn the mash into a beer-wine consistency, giving it 14 to 21 days to cure, as compared to the usual four- to five-day fermentation process applied to most spirits.
“Tio’s fermentation process gives our spirit a glassy pearl-look and, most importantly, prevents hangovers,” Barbosa said. Every self-respecting pitorrero (moonshiner) knows that without the perlas (pearl-look), the pitorro is no good, he said.
The mash is made of apples, honey, brown sugar, non-GMO corn, yeast and New York City water.
“We fill and label each bottle by hand. We heave big bags of apples onto our shoulders,” Barbosa said. They handle their own distribution.
They built their raw first-floor loft space, including assembling the still from Germany. They designed and created a tasting room to feel and look like Old San Juan. The bar is finished with corrugated zinc metal, in typical island style.
They applied for a NYS Farm D license ($127), which allows them to distribute wholesale, sell retail and run a tasting room, according to Barbosa, who quit a job as a superintendent for the New York City Department of Housing. Valentin worked as a sheet metal professional with a local union.
A growing community
“The great thing about the microdistillery business is that we are part of a small yet growing community. We help each other. We are not competitors,” Barbosa said.
“I heard a TED Talk by Ralph Erenzo of Hudson, N.Y., who lectured about ‘gumption.’ He is credited with reforming the New York State Farm Distillery Act. He said that there was no blueprint to start a distillery.
“That’s all we needed to hear. Everything we did was on the fly,” Barbosa said. In December 2013, after three years of work and getting all the licenses, they launched Pitorro Shine, 92 proof and Pitorro Anejo, both at 750ML & 375 ML.
Barbosa said that branding, word-of-mouth and luck were important factors for this start-up. “We were featured on a local New York TV show that drew one viewer straight to our door,” he said.
“That customer, Mercedes Garcia, was our very first customer. She said it sounded like her grandfather’s moonshine. Once she tried it she was so amazed that she returned with her family. They loved it too and started spreading the word.
“We call our customers ‘members’ as we are a growing ‘movement,’ ” he continues. “We have live music, an old-school salsa band every other Friday evenings and home-cooked food.”
PMD offers a tasting room by appointment. There are tasting tours every Friday.
Main photo: PMD makes Pitorro Shine and Anejo in its South Bronx distillery. Credit: Jennifer Yip