Rum Runners is a series that tells the story of influential bootleggers who shaped the course of drinking history. While many bootleggers developed unsavoury reputations as gangsters and criminals, there were others like Bill McCoy who became folk heroes and gentleman smugglers.
Tactful, charming and intelligent, McCoy set the mold for successful offshore smuggling operations. His reputation in the rum industry is so great that he’s been immortalised by the Real McCoy rum company and Foursquare Distillery.
Becoming a rum runner
McCoy was born in 1877 in Syracuse, New York and from his early days he felt called by the sea. He served as a mate and quartermaster on various ships and he set up a motor boat service and boatyard with his brother Ben. McCoy made a name for himself as a skilled yacht builder and sailor, a reputation that would serve him well in the coming years.
At the beginning of Prohibition, the McCoy brothers were struggling. Their boat and adventure businesses couldn’t compete against the buses and new motorways that were being built across Florida and they needed a fix.
Salvation came in the form of a rum runner, who offered to pay them to transport booze through the Rum Row (the 3-mile maritime limit off American shores). This 3-mile limit gave rum runners the chance to offload alcohol and sneak it into port without violating the Eighteen Amendment.
Although McCoy declined the offer, it inspired him to become an independent rum runner and he and his brother invested in a schooner called Henry L Marshall. He sailed the schooner into Nassau, loaded it with 1500 cases of Canadian whisky and returned to the US, where it sold for $15,000.
From that point on, McCoy was hooked and he expanded his operation by introducing a new schooner called Arethusa.
Building the floating liquor store
What set McCoy apart from other rum runners was his thoughtful and risk-free approach. Unlike other smugglers who diluted their liquor with harmful products like turpentine, McCoy’s booze was unsullied and clean. This unadulterated, high-quality spirit became known as ‘The Real McCoy.’
He converted Arethusa into a floating liquor store that operated within the three-mile marine boarder. After parking the boat just inside international waters, he arranged for buyers to come through the Rum Row and purchase rum, whisky and any other tipple they wanted.
McCoy set up a strict system. Only two buyers were allowed on board at any one time and any vessels were watched by a swivel machine gun to ensure that there wasn’t any trouble. This approach worked and McCoy established himself as a successful businessman.
Staying ahead of the law
His techniques allowed him to stay ahead of the law. One example includes him renaming the Henry L Marshall schooner Tomaka and placing it under UK registry to avoid US jurisdiction. He’s also credited with creating the burlock, a package that held six bottles jacketed in straw. Three were on the bottom, then two, then one, and a hole was sewed in burlap.
Not only were the burlocks compact and easy to transport, they could quickly be disposed of. Some were lined with salt, which helped the sacks to sink when thrown overboard. After the salt evaporated, the sacks came back to the surface.
McCoy took his smuggling empire to the next level by setting up on the island of St Pierre. A French colony, St Pierre existed outside of US law, while not having any competing factions. Under McCoy’s guidance, the St Pierre economy transformed, and the island turned into a commercial merchant port.
Captured and jailed
On November 23rd 1923, McCoy’s luck ran out when he was captured by the US Coast Guard. In a battle with the Coast Guard’s ship, Seneca, McCoy was unable to stop Tomaka from being boarded. He surrendered, stating that he was fully aware of his actions.
“I have no tale of woe to tell you. I was outside the three-mile limit, selling whisky, and good whisky, to anyone and everyone who wanted to buy.”
McCoy pleaded guilty, spending nine months in a New Jersey prison. After his release, he returned to Florida and invested in real estate, while carrying on his seafaring passion with his brother. McCoy passed away in 1948 from a heart attack in his happy place – out at sea, aboard his private yacht Blue Lagoon.
The Real McCoy lives on
In the modern day, McCoy’s legacy lives on with his own rum brand. The Real McCoy was founded by Bailey Pryor, who came up with the idea to create a unique rum while producing a documentary about McCoy.
He travelled to Barbados and teamed up with master distiller, Richard Seale of Foursquare Distillery. The duo came up with a high-quality rum that embodied all the values that Bill McCoy lived for. None of the rum is adulterated with sugars or added flavourings. It remains pure, tasty and traditional. From a three-year silver rum aged in oak barrels, to a twelve-year super premium variety, you’re guaranteed to have a drink that you’ll always remember.
Billy McCoy wasn’t the only rum runner with an interesting story. Marie ‘Spanish Marie’ Waite was a rum running queen of Havana and you can find out more about her life in The Rum Ration.