When Francisco Garcia’s family travels to the Dominican Republic, the bottles they bring back to Brooklyn are not from the airport duty-free shop. They are empty.
Well, not empty – cinnamon, cloves and other island spices vibrate in the glass like shark teeth and seashells – but devoid of liquid. Back home, Garcia and his family unbox the bottles and fill them with red wine and rum, and after an indefinite steeping time, their mamajuana, DR’s unofficial drink, is ready to be uncorked and shared. “It’s just a celebratory thing,” Garcia said. “But everything in the Dominican Republic is festive.”
This festive tonic inspires Papa Juan de Garcia, the flagship bottling of Strivers’ Row, the Harrowgate nano-distillery he founded in April 2021. The eight spices align with much of the traditional formula (plus a few liberties secrets) but instead of rum and wine, the 32-year-old whiskey lover uses an exclusive 60-degree single malt barrel.
In his third-floor studio, huge loft windows flood the space with light, making the gold foil lettering on Strivers’ teal labels shine, while illuminating the liquids in the flask-style bottles. Garcia fills plastic thimbles with honey daddies, an ongoing experiment, and without. The unsweetened version glows warm amber, while the honeyed version matches the pair of Timberlands tucked under a worktable among snake plants and cocktail books.
“You have to try to be a little bit different and original because distillation really hasn’t changed in hundreds of years,” says Garcia.
The exponential growth of the craft distilling space, locally and nationally, complicates the challenge for a small company like Strivers’ Row to cut through the noise of this port-aged this and that. Papa Juan was both a clever marketing move and a way to create a product with personal resonance.
“I didn’t start saying it would be a Latino distillery, but that’s how it turned out. Bringing in a bit of culture was just natural and comfortable. Strivers’ Row isn’t just Philadelphia’s smallest commercial distillery; it is also the first held by a Latinx person.
While Papa Juan and Ron Filadelfiano, Garcia’s elegant dark molasses rum finished in charred American oak, bears Spanish names, the distillery does not. Stivers’ Row borrows from a tony block in Harlem, where Garcia lived and “became obsessed with the history of this prosperous neighborhood with black entrepreneurs in the early 1900s: a congressman, a famous surgeon, all those endeavors accomplishing things. He went through many names for the distillery, but kept coming back to Strivers’ Row. “It made a lot of sense to me, because of the story that I enjoyed, but also, I think immigrants are all diehards.”
Garcia lived in a house with cement floors and a tin roof until the age of four, when her parents emigrated from Villa Lobos, an hour from the Atlantic in the Dominican countryside, to Bushwick, Brooklyn and opened a bodega. “I was a little boy behind the counter doing the cash register, going to Restaurant Depot and Jetro,” he says.
For him, his parents embody the definition of wrestlers. “My father had a 15-year stay at 16 hours a day, without vacation. They did not travel even when they could afford it. They opened five businesses. They own [the house] we grew up in New York, property in the most popular city in the world.”
After attending public elementary and middle schools, Garcia earned a college prep scholarship in Connecticut, an experience that propelled him to Vanderbilt and Penn, and then to a Wall Street career at Goldman Sachs. But the entrepreneurial spirit in its DNA would not be ignored.
“My parents were never secretive about money, so I grew up aware and comfortable with the idea of losing it and the risk behind it. [starting a business],” he says. To wit: Garcia opened Evergreen Ice Cream Co. in Bushwick in 2013 and closed the store within a year when his heart was no longer in it. Six months later, he moved to Philadelphia with his little girl. then friend, now wife, Johanna Lou, who was starting medical school at Temple.
He took a job in the city at the Department of Commerce, where he became interested in “how you do [cities] sustainable, resilient and equitable,” says Garcia. “The two most important levers are capital, which is often the first obstacle for minorities. [entrepreneurs]and politics.
With a financial background on Wall Street, he learned the political side locally while working for the city, then nationally as a Biden-Harris campaign staffer. These on-the-job trainings converge on Strivers’ Row, which is a distillery at first sight, but more profoundly, a vehicle for change. “I used to have a city official say, ‘You can’t aspire to be something you can’t see’, so the easiest way for me to have an impact is if I can do it.”
Strivers’ Row is already evolving its social media-powered, direct-to-consumer model to increase bar and restaurant representation and decode the PLCB establishment. Pepper Speese became resident distiller and mixologist in February, bringing his cocktail expertise and planning to add amaro and bitters to the as-yet-unnamed single malt whiskey family (currently aging for release in 2023), Ron Filadelfiano and Papa Juan. .
Garcia passes the likes of the Papas across the table, and both batches slide easily. If mamajuana is what fuels a coro, Dominican slang for a party get-together, Papa Juan is what you want to sip after everyone has gone home.
“I haven’t done it yet,” he said. “I’m far from getting there,” but he is trying.
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news outlets producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project about solutions to poverty and the city’s push for economic justice. Find all our reports on brokeninphilly.org.