RIP 151. Long live pitorro!
Bacardi 151 always had an unfair reputation. The high-alcohol rum’s name alone brought a smirk to the face of anyone who’d enjoyed it in a punch or frozen cocktail and then had to endure the hangover it brought. When introduced in 1963, it was intended to be a nod toward the tradition of overproof, navy-strength rums—burly liquors that were used by the British Navy to ensure that gun powder could still light if accidentally soaked in rum spilled from a barrel. However, imbibers took more notice of the 151 proof than any connection to history. Vilified for both the crippling hangovers and the en flambe stunt cocktails served up at chain restaurants, 151 was quietly discontinued by Bacardi in 2016. If you’ve seen the 75.5% abv rum since then, someone must have been hoarding it.
John the Beachcombers, daiquiris, piña coladas, zombies, hurricanes—we associate rum, and 151 in particular, with all of these drinks. But for Puerto Ricans, rum has nothing to do with novelty drinks with crazy straws. Puerto Ricans talk about rums the way misty-eyed Kentuckians talk about bourbon. And while across the States, 151’s disappearance left a wake of bummed-out frat bros, in Puerto Rico it led to an unanticipated renaissance of pitorro, a homemade Christmastime hooch.
Typically derived from sugarcane or molasses, pitorro is made the same way any rum is. After it’s rendered and distilled in a large vessel, the hooch then has an ample amount of fruit added to it in a process known as curing. Then it's buried in the ground to ferment for an indeterminent amount of time. What’s fantastic about the curing step is that it's is a wild card from a flavor and potency standpoint: Much like Outback Steakhouse, there are “no rules, just right.” That’s because the type and quantity of the fruit largely depends on what’s available and where on the island the pitorro is being made. Options range from mangoes, tamarind, strawberry, pineapple, papaya, star fruits, and coconuts to raisins, chocolate, and coffee. The fruits vary from region to region and family to family, and the flavors that a family adds to its pitorro may have been passed down from a grandmother to a granddaughter akin to a secret recipe.
Jaclyn Gomez, a bartender in San Juan, told me that her family’s pitorro recipe is “typically made with mangoes and coconuts.” But back when her elderly father still made the stuff, “he’d get crazy with it. I can remember him making it once with plantains, and for some reason he put a few shrimp in it. That wasn’t my favorite batch.” Gomez says that her older brother and his family make the pitorro now. No word on whether there are shrimp in this year’s batch.
The timing for burying pitorro, like so many other aspects of it, is open to interpretation. According to a few sources I spoke with, burying it in January for 11 months for the coming year’s holiday season is the traditional thing to do. In addition to keeping it at a more stable temperature to assist fermentation, burying also keeps the police from sniffing around too much. It’s illegal to make pitorro in Puerto Rico, and enforcement of at-home distilling spikes in December.
Pitorro is typically 100 proof or greater, and that’s where the Bacardi 151 comes into play. While 151 was still available, some Puerto Ricans favored it over the homemade rum for its consistency of proof and flavor. It makes sense: With the long curing process being the crucial step, why not just roll with the ready-made stuff? It's like, “Grandma’s pie recipe calls for homemade crust, but let’s get the store-bought crust just this once.” But now, with 151 out of the picture, pitorro is ascendent once again, ensuring that many grandmas’ recipes will be passed on to the next generation.