Meet NYC Fancy Food Fellow Finalist: Port Morris Distillery
Have you ever tried Pitorro?
Ralph Barbosa and Billy Valentin, New Yorkers of Puerto Rican heritage, opened up the Port Morris Distillery to bring the “moonshine of Puerto Rico” to New York City palates.
The duo produces spirits based on the heritage, traditions, and family recipes of Guayama, Puerto Rico, at their distillery in the Port Morris neighborhood of the Bronx.
Pitorro has been produced since the 1600s with sugar cane as its primary ingredient. Although considered a rum, it is much stronger than most commercial varieties. With many family preferences throughout the island, recipes change from family to family. But what gives Pitorro its distinct flavor is the “curing” process—burying jugs of the spirit in the ground with Caribbean fruits like coconut, pineapple, and tamarind.
As one of seven finalists in our Taste of NYC: Fancy Food Fellowship, sponsored by NYCEDC and the Specialty Food Association, Port Morris Distillery now has a chance to share its special spirits at this year’s Summer Fancy Food Show, where over 22,000 buyers from more than 100 countries will converge to view top-of-the-line specialty food products.
We spoke to Ralph about the origins of the Port Morris Distillery.
What prompted you to start the business?
During a family reunion for Los Dias de Los Reyes, we heard old stories of the moonshine days from our Uncle, who learned the process of the Rodriguez family recipe firsthand from his uncle. Hearing our family’s history while sipping the rich flavors of Pitorro made us think.
We did research into the earlier distilling companies in New York City—Kings County Distillery, Breuckelen Distilling and New York Distilling Company—and we thought, why not bring the flavor of Pitorro to New York City?
After previously owning a business in the Port Morris section of the South Bronx and owning real estate in the area, we decided in 2010 that this area would be the perfect location for our own Pitorro distillery.
Did you have any culinary or business experience to help you get started?
We grew up in the Frederick Douglass Houses on Manhattan's upper West Side, but decided to take a plunge into the moonshine business. What better way than to do it legally, and with the help of a onetime moonshiner and now the master distiller behind PMD, our uncle "Tio" Rafael, from Guayama, Puerto Rico?
Without a business plan or any idea on how to get started, we decided the first piece of the plan was to convince Tio to make the move from Puerto Rico to NYC. After convincing our uncle to relocate from Puerto Rico, we decided on making Port Morris, New York our home.
From owning my first silk screen company out of my parents apartment on the Upper West Side, I've always been interested in business, and we love shows like Bar Rescue, Shark Tank, and Moon Shiners. Billy and I have always been go-getters and hard workers.
What are some of the major obstacles you face in your day-to-day operations?
Being a Bronx-based business poses obstacles on its own. Unlike Brooklyn, which has become a major brand label of its own, creating a Bronx-Made brand has not been the easiest thing. But it has been very rewarding and has created the character of who we are as a business.
What role does your local community play?
Port Morris has attracted others to open up shop: Tirado Distillery, which makes rum & whiskey, and Bronx Brewery, which produces NYC-crafted beer, are just foot steps away.
We at Port Morris try to stay rooted in the community. We donate to fundraising causes in our neighborhood and we sponsor a 40-year and older Hard Ball Baseball Team. We go out and support them every Sunday on Randall's Island. We love having our neighbors be part of the business—to feel like community, not just customers.
Are there any common cultural misconceptions that you face as an immigrant entrepreneur?
Because of our origins and location, we are automatically placed in a Latino market without being considered a NYS Farm Product and hand crafted spirit. But New York City is the greatest city in the world, and through programs like the Fancy Food Show, we are making our presence more known.
Eager to try Port Morris Distillery’s Pitorro? Here is a list of locations where their products are sold. And of course, stop by for a free tour.
About the Fancy Food Fellow Series: Each week, we’re featuring immigrant entrepreneurs with a passion for bringing their unique flavor to NYC’s melting pot. Come back next week for another food profile from this year’s Fancy Food Fellow Finalists. You can find all profiles here.