On paper, The Real McCoy Rum seems impossible.
It’s a partnership between a filmmaker with zero experience in the alcohol industry and one of the most notoriously serious distillers in the Caribbean. It seems like it could only come from a colossal, industrial liquor company, but the rum hails from the highly respected Foursquare Distillery, which produces some of the most coveted bottles of rum on the collectors’ market. The brand emerged in the last decade, yet it is arguably the closest thing to Barbados rum that was being produced a century ago. The Real McCoy sounds like an utter contradiction, but everything makes sense when you hear the story of the brand’s namesake rum runner and the effort to revive his legacy.
Bill McCoy is arguably the only true hero of Prohibition. Unlike other recognizable bootleggers of his day—like Al Capone, Baby Face Nelson, or Machine Gun Kelly—McCoy didn’t build his reputation on the bodies of slain foes, but rather on the quality of his product. The boat captain sailed spirits from the Caribbean to a parking spot three miles off the New York coast, where he could sell his wares semi-legally in international waters from a floating liquor shop. The self-proclaimed “honest lawbreaker” sold unadulterated rum that was far superior to competing hooch, earning his products the nickname “the real McCoy.” After a stint in jail, he retired in Florida to pursue other work. Ironically, McCoy didn’t even drink.
It’s a good story, and Bailey Pryor knows a good story. The documentarian has produced many historical films for PBS, including one about the rum runner in 2012. Pryor became enamored with the tale, following McCoy’s trail (through pictures the bootlegger donated to maritime museums) back to his alcohol source in Barbados. After talking with the director of the Barbados National Archives, he learned there was likely only one blender on the island in the 1920s that could possibly supply enough rum to satisfy McCoy: the R.L. Seale family.
Like McCoy, Pryor is a natural entrepreneur, and he saw deeper potential beyond the documentary. He saw all the elements of a successful brand: a historic origin story, a facility that could produce the same product to the same standards, free publicity from the documentary, and, crucially, the opportunity to lock down a trademark on a fantastic name that was inexplicably available. He also noticed parallels between the alcohol market in the 1920s and the modern scene, which is saturated with global brands producing rums chock-full of additives and artificial coloring.
Pryor decided to revive McCoy’s to wake up modern Americans who were accustomed to sugary spiced rum and Highballs made with Coke and to win drinkers over just as the rum runner did with an authentic product that was undiluted, unadulterated, and tasty as hell. “I want the customer to sip this and be as close to standing on the deck of Bill McCoy’s boat as we can possibly get,” Pryor says.
There was only one person for the job, Richard Seale, fifth-generation head of the R.L. Seale brand and master distiller at the Foursquare Distillery, which the family opened in the 1990s. “I was warned that Richard was kind of a stoic guy,” Pryor says. “They said, ‘Well he’s probably not going to work with you because he doesn’t really work with outsiders, and you’re this movie guy and you’re about as far away as anybody he’s going to work with.’”
Seale was indeed suspicious. “We get many requests like this and coming from a filmmaker, I was very skeptical,” Seale recalls. “I did what I usually do to see if someone is really committed. I told him to come to Barbados.” When Pryor showed up, he explained his intent to create a historically accurate product, and Seale was all ears. “Normally, I get requests to produce some new, trendy, marketing-driven junk product,” he says. “It was a pleasant surprise to have a request for exactly what I want to do.”
The duo decided to produce The Real McCoy just like Seale’s other award-winning rums, from molasses to fermentation to the blending of distillates from both Coffey column and pot stills. While it’s customary in Barbados to combine pot and column distillates for a crowd-pleasing balance of flavors, The Real McCoy leans more heavily toward the pot still than any other Foursquare product. This gives it the heaviest “rummy” flavor of the bunch.
The Real McCoy also offers access to a niche distillery that produces rums that are often difficult for novices to appreciate or afford. Many Foursquare rums are aged in esoteric used barrels and often cost more than $100 a bottle. With the exception of special releases, The Real McCoy typically ages in ex-bourbon barrels; comes with recognizable age statements of 3, 5, and 12 years, and costs between $20 and $50. The ABV also tends to be lower—less than 50 percent—than other overproof Foursquare releases (though The Real McCoy special releases have been inching up in proof). With the exception of Doorly’s (a little-known brand imported by a single retailer in the United States), The Real McCoy 3-Year Aged is the youngest rum Seale produces in volume, and it’s widely available to American bartenders.
The brand not only benefits from Seale’s exacting production standards, but also the distillery’s environmental and fair labor practices. The distillery boasts a zero-waste facility. Effluent goes to a treatment plant, where solids are filtered out and distributed to farmers for animal feed, and liquid is aerated to neutralize the pH (then used to water crops, including sugarcane). Bottles, labels, and shipping boxes all come from recycled materials, and the distillery is currently installing solar panels. Meanwhile, the Seale family ensures employees receive fair compensation, which inspires enduring loyalty. Pryor points out that there are families of workers who have been with the company for three generations.
“Sustainability is a very big thing on any island,” Pryor says, because inhabitants need to allocate limited resources carefully and take care of their home. But he also believes environmental distilling aligns with McCoy’s legacy. “We’re trying to be the Real McCoy in everything we do, so in all of our packaging and everything else, we go for sustainability,” he adds.
The Real McCoy is many things in one bottle. It’s historic and modern, American and Barbadian, a rum for bartenders to mix and connoisseurs to sip. But if you ask Pryor, it’s a lot simpler. “The Real McCoy is best described as a real rum,” he says. Bill McCoy would probably agree.