- Israel Meléndez Ayala
Persisting and resisting: when alcohol is more than commodity
“Hotel Lacks Corkscrews in Condado-Vanderbilt and Won't Serve ‘Set-Ups' Either—Cañita is Powerful but Awful,” says a New York Times article from August 25, 1929. The writer is describing a scenario during Prohibition in Puerto Rico, which was in effect from 1917 to 1933, and a non–Puerto Rican perspective of domestic homemade rum known as ‘cañita’, which is still produced illegally and consumed by many Puerto Ricans in the Archipielago. Drunk mainly during Christmas, it is a traditional beverage that persists despite the colonial issues Puerto Rico endlessly faces.
The cañita, or pitorro, is a distillate of sugar or molasses, such as rum, but without a logo and unbranded which continues to be produced and consumed by Boricuas. The freshly distilled rum—white, pure, and sometimes crude—is known as ‘ron caña’ or ‘cañita,’ later becoming ‘pitorro’ when ‘curao’ (cured) with fruits or nuts. Cañita and pitorro are the local names for these homemade rums. (For the purposes of this piece, they are used interchangeably and signify the same product.)
Even with the fame and high volume of commercial rums made in Puerto Rico, pitorro remains. Legal rum brands have labels with hundred-year-old family coats of arms, grandiloquent surnames and advertising campaigns with fantastic stories of personal improvement, about the lonely, adventurous European man who made the journey to this hemisphere. While the story of pitorro and cañita is firmly rooted in Puerto Rican traditions, legal rum brand stories typically begin in Europe, romanticising the colonial journey.
Pitorro distillers do not need creative geniuses from advertising agencies, slogans, television commercials with artificial scenes on paradisiacal beaches or disco nights, with scantily clad models. Without sponsoring champion sports teams, without radio spots, without patents, without paying taxes, without large distilling plants—without all the bells and whistles that keep legal rum alive—these distillers have preserved traditions and customs for generations.
All homemade rum is illegal, since Prohibition—that is, without paying taxes, without regulation by government agencies, it is obviously clandestine rum. Puerto Rico experienced Prohibition as a result of being a colony of the United States, despite having no voting representation in Congress or the ability to vote for president while living in the archipelago.
Still today, if distillers are caught by the authorities their vehicle will be confiscated and they can suffer an indeterminate fine of up to $2,000 or more. Despite this, pitorro persists – why?
The production of homemade spirits is as old as the sugarcane industry. Saccharum Officinarum (sugar cane) arrived in Hispaniola (today’s Dominican Republic and Haiti) in 1493, and in the 16th century an enslaved workforce tilled its fields and produced alcoholic drinks fermented from its juices. This sugarcane drink doesn’t specifically qualify as rum, but by the end 16th century there is evidence of rum distillation. Still, rum wasn't named as such until the seventeenth century when it was physically recorded by a British traveller in the Caribbean.
After Spanish settlers exploited the island’s gold—and found more of it in large quantities on other lands, known today as Mexico, Colombia, and Venezuela —Puerto Rico and the rest of the Spanish colonies in the Caribbean were no longer a significant priority for Spain. In the case of Puerto Rico, it was a colony of military significance and its inhabitants, especially the ‘criollos’, were locked into a continuous state of survival with very rigid laws. One of which was the prohibition of producing alcohol. This was intended to protect alcohols made in Spain, like wine, which was consumed in the colonies only in Eucharist and by the elites or peninsulares, because ‘criollos’ could not afford them.
The other problem was the crown’s monopoly of the market by only allowing trade with Spain. This consolidated the wealth and power between the privileged by the crown and forcing the rest to survive from clandestine markets—that is to say trade with non-Spanish colonies and through the barter or sale of products made in Puerto Rico, such as rum. Among the hispanic American lands, this rum was epithelized as “aguardiente de caña” and was what the working class (non-enslaved and enslaved) could get and afford, turning it into the ‘spirit of the working class.
Following the gradual dissolution of colonial rule in the Caribbean, rum underwent a narrative transformation. Many producers tried to change the classist perception of the spirit. At the 1882 Agricultural Expo in the southern town of Ponce, Puerto Rico, the investments of more and better equipment from sugar haciendas caused by the sugar rush and high profit from rum in the nineteenth century revealed that the industry was acquiring an independent status and becoming an economic force on its own—close to, but separate from, the sugar industry. This was apparent in the manner in which rum started to be publicly portrayed in Puerto Rico by rum owners as “fine rum”. These fine rums tried to separate themselves from the rest by using European techniques like ‘Solera’ and ageing in oak barrels. These practises emulated European palates and were made using equipment the working class could not afford.
In 1898, Spain signed the Peace Treatment of Paris after the Spanish-American war and Puerto Rico was passed to United States rule. Many social and political policies changed but the sugar industry at large got another boost under its new coloniser. More sugar production led to more pitorro which continued to be produced and consumed by the working class. Meanwhile, tourists and those who could afford industrial rums for their mojitos and daiquiris drank commercial bottles.
By 1917, the rum industry in Puerto Rico had definitely become a driving, dynamic force. It developed a well-defined division of labour, with specific productive objectives. The proper separation of the distilling and rectifying processes contributed to the product’s quality. In 1916 and 1917, the extra taxes derived from the rum industry alone exceeded the amount of one million dollars per year. As such, the rum industry was the main force behind the massive public works efforts in roads, hospitals, and schools undertaken by the new regime for the first seventeen years of twentieth century. But this rum extravaganza ended abruptly with Prohibition.
The economy in Puerto Rico started to crumble from the high dependency on rum to such an extent that local politicians asked the U.S. to exempt the Archipielago because it wasn't a state. Prohibition also negatively affected tourism which was, and still is, one of Puerto Rico’s main sources of income, but the U.S. didn't listen. Hotels found a way to smuggle alcohol – at times getting caught, like at the Vanderbilt Hotel in Condado when an undercover agent “...purchased liquor through a bellboy”.
Just like in the U.S., Prohibition promoted the insurgence of an underground economy, much like the one that operated during the survival times of Spanish rule. Even the authorities got their beaks wet. Judge Ira K. Wells from the U.S. District Court of Puerto Rico dismissed a case on August 25, 1929 because the government witnesses, a prohibition agent and two policemen assigned to assist, had been seen partying in Mayagüez nightclubs. Judge Wells said that their behaviour had been “a disgrace to prohibition and the United States,” the New York Times reported at the time.
The possibility of acquiring expensive foreign liquor or travelling to nearby islands during Prohibition was out of reach for most people. The majority of the locals satisfied their desire for rum with pitorro—and even sometimes the tourists, too.
The authorities happily reported the violations of the Prohibition Act as confiscation of pot stills, bottles, and some arrests but not many, because ‘pitorro’ producers had well-honed techniques of escape with a way of watchers in specific positions. It was mainly neighbours who raised the alarm when the authorities were coming. And as most producers worked in the mountains, they were covered by undergrowth, making it hard for the authorities to reach or find their production.
Up to the end of the Prohibition, the manufacture of cañita became a major burden for the authorities and a very lucrative industry for bootleggers, one that was not contributing at all to the local treasury. The clandestine production and sale made huge profits for many, especially those among the working classes, which boosted the underground economy.
Cañita producers considered themselves defenders of an old tradition against an intrusive government. Cañita and pitorro are an expression of resistance: by not recognizing the state’s authority, despite knowing the consequences. This could be interpreted as symbolic.
According to a former director of Prohibition interviewed, by Harwood Hull for the New York Times,“...[for] every still seized in the Island two others spring up because they feel it is a commandment to do.” He estimated a 10,000 pot stills in the 1920s. “Certainly so long as the Island grows sugar cane there will be molasses from which to distil rum.”
After the end of the Prohibition, the rum industry and the government had to confront not only the economic challenge of illegal production, but also the image associated with it. The cañita was claimed to be authentic Puerto Rican rum compared to the rum produced “over there,” referring to industrialised rum as a U.S. product. The makers of industrialised rum were perceived as having followed and accepted the rule of the U.S. government during Prohibition. Cañita and pitorro maintained outlaw status.
The production of cañita, just like any process of material production, was accompanied by an ideological construct. The anthropologist Sidney W. Mintz mentioned in a study in 1956 for the University of Puerto Rico:
The sale of cañita and its consumption in the face of legal threats must be seen to some extent as the expression of lower-class values. While legitimate rum is called by local people “ron mostrador”(showcase rum), “ron enganchao”(hung on rum) and “ron sellao” (rum with a seal), the illegal product is dignified with the name “ron del país” (rum of the country). Such attitudes may represent part of the lower-class ideology formed in reaction to hostile forces generated by other class groupings outside the local community.
It took a huge effort from the official rum industry to reclaim its ‘Puerto Ricaness’ by strong campaigning from the government together to minimise the clandestine production, by exposing it as an unhealthy and low-quality manufacturing process, and by heavy handedly enforcing the penalties of law. Still, cañita and pitorro persist, though maybe not at the same level of production – persecution by authorities – as it once did. You will always find a bottle of pitorro in any Puerto Rican house at Christmas and a “primo” who asks, “¿quieres?”
Israel Meléndez Ayala is a Historian and Anthropologist from Puerto Rico with a Master’s in International Relations and a World Class 2019 finalist bartender in Puerto Rico.
 José Manuel Gonzalez Cruz, Thesis: Destilando Caña: Resistencia Ron Clandestino en la Isla de Puerto Rico, Orientador: Prof. Dr. Cristhian Teófilo da Silva (Brasil: Universidade de Brasília, 2014). p.10-11.  Juan Llanes, Desde el Barrio al Alambique y la Gallera, (Puerto Rico: State Historic Preservation Office, 2016). p.136.  Fernando Picó, Los gallos peleando, (San Juan: Ediciones Huracán 1983)  Fernando Picó, Historia general de Puerto Rico, (San Juan: Ediciones Huracán 2008) p.165.  Arturo Morales Carrión, Puerto Rico. A Political and Cultural History (New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1983), p.35-36.  Luis Pumarada O'Neill, La Industria Cafetalera de Puerto Rico (Puerto Rico: State Historic Preservation Office, 1989) p. 32  Luis Pumarada O'Neill, La Central Azucarera en Puerto Rico, 1898-1952 (Puerto Rico: State Historic Preservation Office, 1990)  Jose Ramon Abad, Puerto Rico en la feria-exposición de Ponce en 1882. Memoria redactada por orden de la Junta Directiva de la misma (Ponce, Puerto Rico: Establecimiento Tipográfico “El Comercio”, 1885).  Ibid.  Cesar Ayala and Rafael Bernabe, Puerto Rico in the American century: a history since 1898 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007) p. 35  Juan Llanes, Desde el Barrio al Alambique y la Gallera, (Puerto Rico: State Historic Preservation Office, 2016) p.130  Lizette Cabrera Salcedo. Thesis: Rones de Puerto Rico: una historia técnica y socioeconómica (1898-1918) (San Juan: Centro de Estudios Avanzados de Puerto Rico y el Caribe, 1993) p.147  Harwood Hull. “Porto Rico is ‘Dry’ but Liquor is Good.” The New York Times. August 25, 1929.  Ibid.  Juan Llanes, Desde el Barrio al Alambique y la Gallera, (Puerto Rico: State Historic Preservation Office, 2016) p.138  Report of the Governor of Porto Rico to the Secretary of War, 1930, 627; Report of the Governor of Porto Rico for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1931, 242.  “Contra la cañita”, El Mundo, February 9, 1956, 12. “Operación DEF. Del alambique, a la corte, al sumidero,” El Mundo, March 22, 1957, 13. Biblioteca Digital Puertorriqueña. Universidad de Puerto Rico. Colección fotos digitales del periodico El Mundo. 28 de octubre de 1958. Identificador: 1053092.  Sidney W. Mintz, “Cañamelar: The subculture of a rural sugar plantation proletariat” in The People of Puerto Rico. A Study in Social Anthropology, ed. Julian H. Steward, A Social Science Research Study, College of Social Sciences, Universidad de Puerto Rico. (University of Illinois Press, 1956) p.314-417.  Juan Llanes, Desde el Barrio al Alambique y la Gallera, (Puerto Rico: State Historic Preservation Office, 2016) p.139  Primo is a cousin in Spanish.