(Director Jon Ullman holds the movie clapper board while Raymond Rodriguez preps the microphone and Emmanuel Abreu watches. / Karina E. Cuevas)
Getting a haircut lasted longer than usual, but that did not bother Leo Fuentes.
It took more than an hour as his barber went back and forth and more customers came in.
They weren’t asking for a haircut. They instead asked for a “nutcracker.”
“It’s a sexy drink and has an appeal,” said Fuentes. “It’s kind of a sleeper in a sense that you don’t taste the alcohol. Its appeal is across the board and the people who started drinking it were the cool people in the neighborhood.”
Two nutcrackers later and Fuentes was clearly buzzed, yet refreshed.
Known as the modern day moonshine, the nutcracker—an illegal alcohol concoction sold in Washington Heights—is the star of a documentary by Jon Ullman and Leo Fuentes. They seek to demystify its origin, ingredients and following among young and old residents, while portraying a more enticing picture of an often forgotten neighborhood.
There is no set release date and shooting will be done throughout the summer as the crew scouts the neighborhood for experiences with the libation.
The documentary featuring the fruity drink came to Fuentes after writing a blog post on the cocktail for his site, The Uptown Collective. The post generated hundreds of comments, and Ullman saw this as a creative opportunity.
“What interested me was the subculture that revolves around it,” said Ullman. “It’s this underground business and it’s in compass with the barbershop culture.”
Ullman credits the drink with bringing people together socially. It also describes the determination of the Dominican people to create a business in order to succeed. At the same time he is aware of its negative connotations and doesn’t glorify the drink.
Though barbershops originally sold the drink, many feel that generalizing is unfair, as many do not sell it.
“Not all barbershops sell that around here,” said Franklin Ayala, owner of Franklin and Ernesto’s Barbershop at 189th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. “Some people come from the Bronx to sell it and even deliver it to your homes.”
The illicit concoction was created in the 1990s, and its inventor remains a mystery to this day. Fuentes’ barber, Magda “Fatuyl” Genoa jumped on the craze and started selling them out of her establishment.
Genoa ceased distribution in 2004 when she was busted by the police. She profited enough from it to open up her own barbershop and make down payments on two apartments; one to live in and the other to sell nutcrackers.
The ingredients for the original libation include Bacardi 151, Southern Comfort, grenadine, lime juice, pineapple juice and Bacardi Dark.
People started selling variations of the drink, which led to some minors getting caught while purchasing it. Eventually the authorities became involved.
In 2011, Gov. Andrew Cuomo passed a law that protects minors from purchasing the beverage. The bill sponsored by state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, D-Manhattan/Bronx and state Assemblyman Nelson Castro, D-Bronx, increased penalties for nutcracker sellers from thousands of dollars to imprisonment for repeat offenders. Barbershops and other establishments caught selling the drink could lose their licenses.
A spokesperson for Espaillat’s office would not comment on the subject.
Washington Heights resident Amelia Cerda said she does not feel police are cracking down hard enough on peddlers.
“They probably think it’s not a big issue, but what they don’t see is that the youngest ones keep drinking this,” said Cerda. “It’s an epidemic, and I don’t know how it’s going to end, but one day it has to end.”
Cerda said the documentary might be a good idea because people will know what it is and what to expect, but she’s worried about the negativity surrounding the neighborhood. She said people might think that Washington Heights is the only place that sells the drink and will associate the neighborhood with it.
The film plans to touch on the subjects of prohibition and the 1992 riots that highlight the neighborhood, and how Washington Heights has evolved over the years. The nutcracker will be the main theme.
By presenting different sides, Ullman expects the audience to draw their own conclusions on the subject.
“People don’t have a clear picture of what we’re doing and are hesitant,” said Ullman. “We’re not glorifying it or condemning it, we’re telling a story. And yes it’s controversial, but it’s up to the people to decide.”