As Port Morris Distillery co-owner Rafael Barbosa points out, every culture has its own version of moonshine.
At his Bronx distillery, people can get to know Puerto Rico’s take: pitorro. Since the 1600s, pitorro had been made with a sugar cane base, placing it under the rum umbrella. These days, Barbosa says it’s commonly made with the more accessible brown or white sugar. After making the shine, or base, pitorro distillers usually infuse it with whatever fruits are in season. At Port Morris Distillery, New York State apples and honey go into the mix.
Port Morris Distillery is the only distillery in the Bronx. Also the only pitorro makers in the continental United States, they produce it using local ingredients from farms they’ve been working with for five years. This sets the business apart.
As Barbosa notes, there are plenty of breweries to go around. Distilleries are harder to come by, and a distillery making a culturally specific moonshine is rarer still. Customers include neighborhood regulars, people coming to find out about pitorro, and people interested in the craft beverage scene and the “made in New York” local sourcing. Barbosa says the customers seeking something craft take to pitorro the fastest on the tours and tastings Port Morris Distillery offers. Other customers can be a harder sell, if they already have a spirit they prefer. The Port Morris team wins these customers over with their coquito, a coconut-based drink popular for the holidays in Puerto Rico.
“Once we give them our coquito — we do it nondairy with no milk or cream — they love that,” Barbosa says. “That grabs them.”
Port Morris Distillery was born from Barbosa’s uncle telling stories of his moonshining days and from Barbosa getting curious about how to make alcohol. He had started researching distilling and reached out to the two distilleries he found in New York City’s nascent but quickly growing spirits scene eight years ago, Kings County Distillery and Breuckelen Distilling. Barbosa immediately got the invitation to come check out the distilling process.
“In our industry, everyone is so friendly,” he explains.
Barbosa got to work on his vision with his friend, co-owner William Valentin. They knew they wanted to use the recipe from Barbosa’s uncle. The entrepreneurs didn’t want to cut any corners: They brought Barbosa’s tio to New York, where he remained working on the recipe with Barbosa and Valentin until he was satisfied with its perfection.
Port Morris Distillery opened its doors in September 2012. While Barbosa had grown up on the Upper West Side, he loved the community in the Bronx, and in Port Morris, specifically. He had previously owned a business in the neighborhood and wanted to hold onto the Port Morris name.
“If you’re not originally from the Bronx, you can’t fake it,” Barbosa says. “But what Puerto Rican person in New York City doesn’t have some connection to the Bronx? A cousin, an aunt, a grandfather. … We wanted that community, we wanted to be in the Bronx. And the community has been super supportive.”
The distillery being in the Bronx has helped move the borough’s craft scene along, a scene that’s so famously already taken root in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Port Morris Distillery brings people to the Bronx to discover what people are creating there, and Barbosa and Valentin’s operation doesn’t disappoint.
On tours and tastings and at the bar, people can try Shine, pitorro’s true moonshine form; Añejo, or the shine that has been aged in barrels for a year with its fruit; and Coquito. There are also different infused iterations, like Ginger and Habañero. Barbosa and Valentin have woven an enthusiasm for cocktails into their business too, and they take pride in their menu. They pay homage to the community by naming different drinks after people who have helped create them with their ideas, from a group of teachers (and customers) to one of the distillery’s first bartenders.
In addition to the PMD main space, pitorro-seekers can catch the distillery Saturdays at the Bronx Market, and they also make appearances at the Union Square Greenmarket. Port Morris Distillery distributes to stores, bars and restaurants around the city and as far upstate as Buffalo. Next, Barbosa and Valentin are working on a line of canned cocktails. In the meantime, Barbosa is happy to be bringing Puerto Rican moonshine to New York from the distillery’s Bronx digs.
“We feel at home here. … People come here and we’re doing something different, something new,” Barbosa says. “It’s a brand-new industry we’re growing, and where we chose is a great place to be doing it.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated Port Morris Distillery is a partner in Gun Hill Brewing Company’s tavern. PMD is not affiliated with Gun Hill Tavern.
Port Morris Distillery is located at 780 E. 133rd St. in the Bronx. More: portmorrisdistillery.com.