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Food & Dining

The Stew: Talking rum (and more) with porn star Ron Jeremy

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Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 02:37 AM
ST. PETERSBURG -

Porn star Ron Jeremy walks into a liquor store.

No, this isn't the first line of a joke.

I'll start over.

Porn star Ron Jeremy walks into the Vegas Showgirls liquor store next door to the Derby Lane dog track. He's 25 minutes late because of bad traffic. He arrives without announcement. A dozen people are waiting for him.

He's there to promote a new brand of spiced rum.

Name on the label: Ron de Jeremy.

Get it?

He gathers his frizzy waterfall of receding hair behind his round shoulders. He is wearing a Ron de Jeremy black T-shirt. He is nothing if not loyal to his brand.

Ten seconds go by. Then 20. No one approaches him. There appears to be an invisible buffer around him. He moves, it shifts with him. It's a tension built on the collective realization of being in a booze vault with a guy who starred in "Naughty Girls Need Love Too" 28 years ago. Jeremy, called by fans and critics alike by the nickname The Hedgehog, scans the crowd without emotion. His eyes move but do not focus.

Jeremy breaks the ice by approaching a display of his rum's shimmering caramel-colored bottles. He sidles up to a lanky young model hired to pour samples. She is wearing a little black dress and too-tall black pumps. He slinks his right arm around the small of her waist and says, "Give me a hug, sweetheart." She obliges unenthusiastically.

The tension broken, a man moves forward to ask Jeremy to sign the bottle he just bought. He is wearing a blue dress shirt and office slacks. He looks like he just came from the office and left his tie on the front seat of his Volvo. Jeremy picks up a Sharpie and signs the label. The small crowd remains quiet as he scribbles.

"Would you like to try a sample?" the rum model says to a middle-aged woman who hustles through the bodies. She clearly is not here to see a man who performed intimate acts in more than 2,000 adult films. She is here for libations.

She politely refuses. After paying, she rethinks this decision and accepts a small plastic shot glass and takes a sip. "That's delicious," she says, before tucking a paper bag under her left arm and scurrying out.

A young man with spiky hair, a plain white T-shirt and a rosary dangling around his neck approaches Jeremy to ask that he autograph a photo of him in an unbuttoned tuxedo.

"Breast wishes, Ron Jeremy," he signs.

Another young man, this one wearing a black Tampa Bay Rays ball cap, black Polo shirt and black shorts, approaches and asks him to sign a book of portraits taken of notable porn stars. He opens to two pages featuring Jeremy. On one page, Jeremy is clothed. On the other, he is naked. Jeremy signs on the naked.

Another man, sweating and nervous and wearing a grey T-shirt reading "Stop Or You'll Go Blind," presents four bottles for Jeremy's autograph. At $19.99, the rum is inexpensive compared with other labels. Multiply it by four, though, and the bill is higher. Jeremy takes the time to sign as the man shuffles nervously. He turns the bottle over and writes, "This is $200 on eBay."

After telling the actor that it's his birthday, Jeremy pulls a small harmonica from his baggy sweatpants and plays a short, unadorned version of "Happy Birthday." The smile on the man's face expands. The rum model hands him four Ron de Jeremy shirts, one for each bottle, and each one gets signed. Despite taking almost 10 minutes, Jeremy does not rush any part of this.

As fans leave the store, a steady stream trickles in to replace them. A young couple comes in to buy a bottle and meet him. They tell him they plan to get married the next day. "Don't tell anyone, it's a secret," the tiny, blond, soon-to-be bride tells him. Again, the harmonica comes out.

"When you get married, it's this," Jeremy says before launching into "Here Comes the Bride."

"After a few years, it's this," he says, and then plays a funeral march. The eloping couple laughs nervously.

A trio of people approach with a camera. A burly man in a backward-facing driving cap tells Jeremy he wants to interview him for the Underground Beverage Network. They've driven from Naples to meet him.

Jeremy explains that the rum endorsement happened after two men from Sweden approached him, seeking to appeal to young, male drinkers who had seen his films. Jeremy, who says he drinks infrequently, liked the rum, which is made in Panama. One Eyed Spirits was born.

"They told me that the word 'ron' in Spanish means 'rum,' so it made sense," Jeremy says.

It also made sense from a family standpoint. His grandfather was a rum runner during Prohibition. Other parts of his family ran the Greengrass delicatessens in New York and California.

He has endorsed other products, he says, including lines of rolling papers and condoms. He produces samples of each from his right pocket.

Why rum? Because every celebrity was endorsing vodkas and tequilas. Donald Trump has a vodka. Dan Aykroyd has a vodka. Sammy Hagar made a mint with his Cabo Wabo tequila. Next to Jeremy's cardboard visage in the liquor store, Bruce Willis was hawking Sobieski vodka on a flatscreen TV.

One Eyed Spirits portrays Jeremy in its materials as a mild knockoff of Dos Equis' "Most Interesting Man in the World." Only Jeremy's life of adventure isn't fictional. After starting as a nude magazine model, he became a legend in adult films. Today, he is part elder statesman for the industry's seepage into mainstream entertainment on reality shows such as "The Surreal Life" and Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations."

In some segments of the food and beverage industry, identifying with a porn star might be considered unsavory. One walk through the Vegas Showgirls liquor store, though, and you realize this is far from a temple to virtue. Consider the six-pack of Sweaty Betty blond wheat beer sold by Boulder Beer Co. Or the bottle of Hijos de Villa tequila shaped like a .40-caliber Glock.

If Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo can be used to respectively sell vodka and tequila, why can't Ron Jeremy? If rappers can endorse cognac, why can't a porn star have his own rum?

"They might buy it once for the novelty, but they won't buy it twice if it's bad," Jeremy says. "This is great rum."

As the bottle says on the back label, "Ron de Jeremy is full of character."

Just like its namesake.

Hey, it's worth a shot.


jhouck@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7324

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