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Puerto Rican moonshine in Port Morris

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Ralph Barbosa and Billy Valentin have tossed back glasses of the local drink pitorro at family gatherings in the lush mountain towns of Guayama, Puerto Rico for decades.

Now the childhood friends are inviting Bronxites to join the party.

The duo, along with Ralph’s brother Jerry, unveiled New York’s first Puerto Rican moonshine-specific distillery in Port Morris in mid September.

At Port Morris Distillery (PMD) at 780 E. 133rd St. between Walnut and Willow avenues, the co-owners share a shot of their heritage as part of a burgeoning Bronx booze scene. They’ve set up shop just a block away from Tirado Distillery on E. 134th Street, which distills a Puerto Rican moonshine product among its many rums and whiskeys.

“It’s one of those products that everybody enjoys,” Valentin said. “You’re tasting something fine like a wine, but then it hits you, and you get the full effect of it.”

In Puerto Rico, pitorro, a moonshine crafted from fermented sugarcane, is the festive booze of choice.

The tastiest stuff on the island is known to be the product of illegal home brewing. No pitorro is alike: popular variations include curing the booze in a jar of cherries or burying it underground in the hollowed-out eye of a coconut.

The Port Morris version —100% legal — is based on a recipe from Barbosa’s “Tio,” the Spanish word for uncle.

Barbosa convinced his tio to leave the island for the Bronx to oversee the production of his beloved beverage, which is also known in Puerto Rico as canita (sugar cane) or lagrimas del monte (mountain tears).

“Tio had never used a measuring tool before, he does the whole thing on feel,” Barbosa said. “He’s a master.”

PMD currently crafts two varieties of the Puerto Rican moonshine out of its industrial Port Morris warehouse. A pearly clear classic version is brewed from sugar, corn, apples, and honey, and rings in at a whopping 92 proof.

The team also offers an 80 proof pitorro aged in wood barrels that, like an aged rum or tequila, bears a golden tinge.

The entire production takes place in one loft-like space. The mashed ingredients rest for 2-3 weeks with yeast in 55-gallon plastic barrels. Then the mixture is transferred into a sparkling copper still flown in from Germany, where it is boiled, steamed, filtered and ultimately transformed into moonshine.

Visitors can taste the end result in a high-ceilinged tasting room next door, with walls painted in the bright pastel palette of an Old San Juan villa.

PMD is holding tasting hours Tuesdays and Thursdays 12 p.m - 4 p.m and will give tours of the space on Fridays from 4 p.m - 9 p.m, Barbosa said.

“We want to educate people on our history, and invite them down to taste what we do,” Barbosa said.

Bronxites, he added, can expect to see PMD’s pitorro popping up at local bars in the coming months.

Updated 4:56 pm, July 9, 2018
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