This is the first January in years that I spend fully in the cold, away from Puerto Rico. We spent Christmas and New Years in our “bubble,” connecting via phone and video calls with loved ones. While separated by distance and COVID-19, I connected with millions of Puerto Ricans around the world through the shared ritual dinner, enjoyed in Noche Buena (Christmas Eve).
The practices surrounding the dinner were different. Homemade pernil was substituted by take-out, bought from a Puerto Rican restaurant that also sold really good pasteles. I made the traditional flan de queso, following the family recipe passed down to me by my sister, while my husband made his amazing arroz con gandules, with his mother’s recipe. Alas, there was an important component missing from our celebration: Pitorro.
Pitorro is often described as Puerto Rican moonshine – a “homemade” rum (ron caña) cured over a long period of time with a variety of additions to mellow the alcohol burn, while adding an enjoyable taste. Pitorro has gained some recent popularity, with commercial distilleries making cured rum, naming it Pitorro and even selling it to tourist in airport markets. The commercial nature of these ventures capitalizes on the tradition and clandestine lure of the beverage, taking away from its rich history, tied to struggles for identity and resistance on the island.
The true Pitorro is traditionally made clandestinely, often within the mountainous regions of the island, hence one of its nicknames: Lágrimas the monte (mountain tears). The homemade rum is cured with a myriad of flavors, including tamarind, passion fruit, almond, and ginger, to name a few.
Clandestine rum flourished in the island during the 1917 Prohibition, which also turned the poor rum makers into criminals and the act of preparing Pitorro one of resistance. Despite Prohibition being long gone, the traditional Pitorro, as understood and beloved by many, is still illegal, given its informal (undocumented) production, failing to pay taxes. Despite its continued illegality and associated stigmatization, Pitorro is sought after and celebrated by many on the island. As José Manuel González Cruz concludes in his investigation about Pitorro production in Puerto Rico,
That clandestine rum is the one that in family and neighborhood festivities is widely and freely distributed, gifted to all present, the same illegal rum which was acquired through a street economic transaction outside of public view [sic]. It is gifted as a social symbol of good faith between friends and family, and a potential symbol of Puerto Rican identity reaffirmation. And this is how [artisanal distillers] persist, without brands, quality control, and in constant change.-JM Gonzalez Cruz, “DESTILANDO CAÑA: Resistencia y Ron Clandestino en la Isla de Puerto Rico” (Master’s Thesis, Graduate Program in Comparative Studies in the Americas, University of Brasilia (p. 175, my translation)
Pitorro, as an object of study, provides us with mucha tela para cortar – the Spanish phrase akin to the academic saying, “much to unpack.” More than just a vehicle for inebriation, Pitorro is a symbol of identity and resistance, and a source of livelihood for many on the island.
To celebrate this beverage, I invite you to view/listen to the last 2020 episode from my favorite podcast, Clientes Necios, featuring José Manuel González Cruz and his experiences taking on Pitorro as an academic research exercise (in Spanish):