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Mystic - When Bailey Pryor was making his recent Emmy award winning film for PBS about famed Prohibition rum runner Bill McCoy, he wondered if anyone had every trademarked the phrase "The Real McCoy."
The well-known phrase came into being in the 1920s because McCoy's rum was prized for being the real thing, not watered down.
To the surprise of Pryor's attorney, no one had ever claimed the phrase. So Pryor's partners did, and last year released a line of three Real McCoy rums that have now garnered 21 awards in rum competitions from San Francisco to London.
But the rums just don't have McCoy's name on them - they are made by the same family-run distillery in Barbados that made the rum McCoy sold three miles offshore of New York, Atlantic City, Montauk and other coastal locations to avoid prosecution during Prohibition.
"We wanted a product that you would sip and say 'this is the Real McCoy,'" Pryor said Thursday while sitting in the living room of his Pearl Street home with his wife Jennifer, who also is involved in the business.
"It was important to us that it lives up to its name," she said.
Pryor grew up in Mystic and worked for Sonalyst Studios in Waterford before moving on to Warren Miller films producing ski films. He formed Telemark Films a decade ago and moved back to Mystic.
Since then he's made another 60 films for PBS, Discovery Channel, ESPN, Spike and other outlets. He is just completing a six-film project for PBS that included documentaries on the restoration of the Charles W. Morgan and McCoy. Last year, the McCoy film won five Emmy awards.
Idea came from book
He said he got the idea for the McCoy film in 2006 after reading a book about McCoy by local author and publisher Stephen Jones.
"It's a great American tale that nobody really knew," Pryor said.
While Pryor said most people think of Chicago and Al Capone when they think of Prohibition, much of the illegal liquor trade was done out at sea. He said McCoy was a fascinating character - a McCoy character even appears in the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire" - because he lived by a certain code and did not even drink alcohol. He was a boatbuilder who, in a tough economy, was looking for a way to use his boating skills to make a living when he decided to transport goods including liquor.
Pryor said McCoy was able to justify what he was doing as not illegal because he was selling liquor to people three miles off shore, outside of federal waters. It was his customers who were the ones breaking the law when they brought the liquor ashore.
McCoy was reliable, making a monthly run to Nassau in the Bahamas to load up his large schooner with liquor, including Barbados rum. He would anchor the white Arethusa off places such as Sandy Hook, N.J., which served the New York City market. His impending arrival was circulated by local fishermen and he would sell to the "rum row" of boats that lined up.
McCoy, who was eventually arrested and sentenced to nine months in prison, was in the rum-running business for just three years.
By the end of his run, he had sold an estimated two million bottles of rum, according to Pryor.
While researching his PBS documentary, Pryor said he discovered that even though McCoy would pick up his rum in Nassua, there was no rum distillery there and it instead had come from Barbados.
So the Pryors went there and met with the owner of the well-known Mount Gay company. They were told the company did not bottle rum for export until the 1950s.
They then went to Four Square Rum Distillery, the only one that had made rum at the time. They met with Richard Seale, a master distiller and the fourth generation of his family to make rum. It was his grandfather who had made McCoy's rum.
Intrigued by the McCoy story, Seale agreed to make a classic unadulterated rum just like the one McCoy would have received, Pryor said. Beginning in 2009, the rums will be aged three, five and 12 years.
The first bottle of Real McCoy rum was delivered Jan. 16 of last year, the 93rd anniversary of Prohibition.
Working with Sean Heyniger, a friend he grew up with in Mystic, the two men assembled a list of investors that include John Sculley, the former CEO of Apple and president of Pepsi; Tim Gannon, the co-founder of Outback Steakhouse and other chains, and John Esposito, the former president of Bacardi USA, the world's largest rum maker.
At first Pryor sold the rum out of his car to customers. But now it is sold in bars, restaurants and liqour stores in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey and Florida.
He has also been entering it in various rum competitions and, with the awards, calls are coming in from companies that want to distribute it.
Pryor said he has signed an agreement to distribute the rum in Canada and just returned from Europe, where he is negotiating agreements to sell it in the United Kingdom and France.
The company has nine employees, offices in Noank and West Palm Beach, Fla., and a warehouse in Stonington.
"The whole prospect of creating something like this has been a really interesting adventure," Pryor said.
Last year, Pryor's company sold 1,000 cases (12,000 bottles) of Real McCoy rum and expects to triple that this year. In comparison, Bacardi, the world's largest rum maker, sells 21 million cases a year. By 2015, Pryor hopes to be in 12 to 15 states as well as overseas.
Pryor said he would like to see real McCoy Rum become similar to Sam Adams and become the first craft rum maker to make it big.
Real McCoy Rum also has given Pryor a message that many successful entrepreneurs can relate to, including some of his investors.
"It was a hare-brained idea. We all have them. You say, 'I wonder what would happen if I did this,'" he said. "The trick is to follow through and put everything you can into it. You never know."