The Real McCoy, The Only Gentleman Bootlegger

Around Christmas we acquired a rather special range of rums that are named after a remarkable individual called William McCoy, a tea total yacht builder that became an infamous bootlegger during the American Prohibition. Unlike other smugglers of the time, 'Bill' McCoy refused to cut or dilute his liquor with unhealthy substances like wood alcohol and turpentine, leading to his produce being known as 'The Real McCoy'. McCoy also saw himself as an honest lawbreaker, never paying money to organised crime or bribing law enforcement or politicians as was the norm at the time.

William McCoy was born into a family with strong ties to the sea as his father, also a William McCoy, was in the Union Navy during the American Civil War. McCoy was born in New York in 1887 and was the middle of three children, with an older brother (Ben McCoy) and a younger sister (Violet McCoy) forming the family unit. William attended Nautical School and graduated first in his class, going on to serve as quartermaster on various vessels, gaining skills he would later use for a more nefarious purpose.

The family moved in the first few years of the 1900's to Holly Hill, a small town north of the famous Daytona Beach in Florida. William and his elder brother set up a boatyard and water taxi in Holly Hill and Jacksonville. As well as ferrying passengers along the coast, the boatyard was used to construct yachts for some very influential and rich clients and by 1918 McCoy has gained a reputation as a highly skilled boat builder. Unfortunately, the brothers couldn't compete with the new roads and buses that were becoming increasingly common in Florida and they had to find another way to make a living.

With the public backlash against Prohibition, the alcohol abstinent McCoy saw an opportunity to make some money bootlegging alcohol from the Bahamas and he made his profitable first run in 1921, earning him $15,000. Seeing the chance for growth, McCoy invested in a 130 foot vessel called the Arethusa and used his boat building skills to maximise the holding space for cargo and fit a more powerful engine to make a quick getaway if needed; in case that didn't work he also fitted a concealed machine gun nest on the bow. He plied his trade up and down the Eastern seaboard, bringing Irish and Canadian whiskey, rum and other fine spirits to the people of America.

Eventually he travelled further North to New York and had a revelation that would revolutionise the way booze was smuggled into the country. The law stated that US waters extended up to 3 miles off the coast, anything past that was considered International waters and exempt from the US Prohibition laws. McCoy would stop short of the US waters and smaller vessels would make their way out to him, conduct the transaction and then make their way back to shore where trucks would be waiting to offload the liquor. These smaller boats could easily outmanoeuvre and outpace the Coastguards vessels, meaning McCoy was making all the money without the risk.

Soon other runners started to copy McCoy and the infamous 'Rum Row' was born with hundreds of ships trading illicit alcohol from Long Island to Florida and down to the Gulf of Mexico. The other runners would cut their products as standard in a bid to increase profits but McCoy, considering himself to be an honourable rogue, refused to engage in this practice and supplied his customers with 'The Real McCoy'. With so much competition abound, captains soon started trying to outdo each other for trade; vessels would throw hedonistic parties on board and supply free booze and prostitutes for their customers. Soon enough the thin veil of civility ceased and crewman were forced to carry weapons as pirates started to attack and sink ships, stealing the cargo and saving themselves the trouble of making the trip to Canada or the Caribbean to pick it up. Truly these were debauched and exciting time to live in and McCoy thrived in this chaotic environment.

McCoy was making a substantial sum of money but his plans for expansion saw him spending it nearly as quickly as he made it. He hired another captain to sail his other vessel, the Henry L. Marshall, in a bid to double his profits but disaster struck when, in 1922, the ship accidentally drifted into US waters and was seized by the Coastguard. Being the registered owner of the ship, McCoy was indited and had to flee to the Bahamas to avoid the long arm of the law.

Bill was now a fugitive and figured it was a good idea to stay in the Bahamas where he registered the Arethusa under British and French registry. This was a clever tactic employed by many of the runners as the US authorities were not permitted to board and seize foreign ships unless they were in US coastal waters. Never one to lie down and admit defeat, McCoy purchased two more vessels and had captains continue his smuggling operation. Unfortunately, these captains and their green crew were found wanting; one ship being seized and the other being badly damaged in a collision with another runner. These tumultuous incidents accumulated huge financial losses for McCoy and his empire nearly collapsed under the strain.

With few options left to him, McCoy was forced to get his hands dirty and loaded the Arethusa, now known as the Tomoka, with as much alcohol as he could afford, which only totaled half a load by all accounts. He sailed for New York and the drink starved New Yorkers cleared him out in a few days. He made more runs and was soon back at the top of his game. Unfortunately, his luck wasn't to hold and in November 1923 he made his last run he was ever to make. McCoy was anchored six or so miles off the US coast after successfully offloading the majority of his cargo when he was set upon by agents working in collaboration with the Coastguard.

Agents were used as opposed to Coastguard personnel to avoid any legal complications, as the boarding action took place outside of US waters, a sly tactic that flaunted the law that they were tasked  with upholding. Accounts vary between those involved in the action but the general consensus is that after the Tomoka was boarded, a massive brawl erupted in which all present were involved. Eventually, the ship was searched and a small quantity of alcohol was found but the Tomoka started to sail away with the agents on board. Some say that McCoy fired the machine gun at the Coastguard vessel as he tried to make his escape, but whether he did or not is irrelevant, as the Coastguard fired two warning shots across the bow that forced the Tomoka to turn back. She was then boarded by a larger number of agents and seized.

McCoy was arrested and charged but was allowed to remain free on bail until his hearing in 1925 where he received a paltry nine month sentence; even this wasn't too bad as the warden of the prison took a liking to McCoy (he probably benefited from his illicit activities!) and allowed him to stay in a hotel where he could go to and from at his pleasure. Despite pleas from the British, the Tomoka remained property of the US government after the seizure and later sold at auction.

McCoy did not return to the bootlegging business as he found the competition was too stiff (and potentially deadly!) from the Mob who had by this time had monopolised the trafficking trade. Despite claiming that his legal fees took the majority of the money he had made, McCoy purchased a residence in Florida and never had to work again. He died at the age of 71 in 1948 from a heart attack aboard his boat named The Blue Lagoon.

Bill McCoy lived life to the full and was not afraid to take risks, refusing to set aside his principals even for the prospect of financial gain. The Real McCoy Rum range was created in honour of this great man and remains true to the Prohibition tradition. The rum is completely uncut, just as McCoy would have liked, and there are no extra added sweeteners, flavouring or nasty chemicals added. The only ingredients are quality blackstrap molasses and crystal clear pure spring water; this has resulted in the rum winning many awards, including a double gold and two silvers at the 2014 World Wine and Spirits Competition. The rum is hand crafted in small batches using a unique combination of coffey and pot stills. The resultant liquid is then aged for either 3, 5 or 12 years in charred American Oak barrels.