Latino Life in Philly

Strivers’ Row opens in Kensington as Philly’s first Latino-owned distillery

Soon you’ll able to order a bottle of Papa Juan, a whiskey-based twist on the Dominican drink mamajuana.

Francisco Garcia is Philly's first Latino distiller

Francisco Garcia is Philly's first Latino distiller

Jesse Smallwood

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Philadelphia is now home to what’s likely one of the nation’s only Latino-owned distilleries.

Francisco Garcia officially launched Strivers’ Row on April 5. Operating out of a 200-sq.-ft. warehouse studio in Olde Kensington, he touts the biz as the smallest commercial distillery in the country.

Using grains and malt from local distributors, including Castle Valley Mill in Doylestown and Montgomery County’s Double Eagle, Garcia is concentrating on whiskey.

The brand’s first offerings will be a white corn whiskey and an infused single malt that pays homage to Garcia’s Dominican Republican roots. Called Papa Juan, it’s his take on the popular Dominican drink mamajuana.

Instead of the traditional rum and wine used for the island’s signature infusion, Papa Juan infuses malt whiskey with barks, spices and honey, for what Garcia called a “subtler spirit.”

“Dominicans don’t really drink whiskey,” he told Billy Penn. “We drink rum and beer… But I hope that my sort of the Dominican drink that I’m producing is something for those folks that need a little bit of a subtler spirit.”

Strivers' Row's first two products, an unaged corn whiskey and Papa Juan

Strivers' Row's first two products, an unaged corn whiskey and Papa Juan

Courtesy Francisco Garcia

When he was about four years old, Garcia emigrated to the United States with his family. They landed in Brooklyn, where Garcia’s dad opened a grocery store — he doesn’t recall the name; “It probably just had a big yellow and red ‘DELI’ sign on it,” he said — and then a restaurant in the Bronx called Caridad.

It was against this entrepreneurial backdrop that Garcia was raised. At 23, he opened his own ice cream shop in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, before joining his future wife on a move to Philadelphia for medical school.

Here, Garcia’s career took a turn toward the political. He graduated from Penn with a master’s in public administration and spent time as the Philadelphia Commerce Department’s director of business development before joining the Biden-Harris campaign.

Garcia was always into distilleries, he said, but it wasn’t until he picked up a book on urban moonshine that he realized a liquor business could be built on a modest budget and at a small scale.

“You do a [distillery] tour and you see these massive machines and massive rooms,” Garcia said. “And you know that this cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to do. And I just kind of assumed that was the only way.”

That book, “Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining,” broadened Garcia’s horizons.

He decided to take the plunge, funding the new business entirely with his savings. “It was harder and more expensive to open an ice cream shop,” he noted, crediting his first business with teaching him how to be “scrappy” and not spend on unnecessary things.

Francisco shares a taste of his spirits with his parents, Marino and Xiomara Garcia

Francisco shares a taste of his spirits with his parents, Marino and Xiomara Garcia

Courtesy Francisco Garcia

Garcia joins a healthy and growing list of distilleries in Philly and the region, though nearly all of them are owned by white people.

He hasn’t yet run into any other operators in the industry with similar heritage, he said — and hasn’t found any online, either. A quick Google search yields next to nothing in terms of information on other Latino- or Hispanic-owned distilleries. One bourbon brand launched in 2015, J. R. Revelry, appears to be defunct, and Garcia described it as more of a label than a distillery.

“There are reports that the first Black owner of the distilled spirits permit [in the U.S.] didn’t happen until 2011,” Garcia remarked. “So just to give you an idea of how much diversity is lacking in this industry.”

Strivers’ Row is Philly-based, but the name honors a historic Harlem neighborhood that became home to a community of Black American professionals in the 1920s. The residents became known as “strivers” for their ambition and pursuit of upward mobility. Garcia lived there for a bit and feels connected to the meaning in other, personal ways.

The word “strivers” describes “people who sort of fight through perseverance,” Garcia said. “And I see that us immigrants sort of have to do that for a seat at the table.”

Strivers’ Row corn whiskey and Papa Juan will be packaged in 200mL glass flasks, and will be available for online purchase starting April 29.

Strivers' Row currently runs on two petite stills

Strivers' Row currently runs on two petite stills

Jesse Smallwood

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