By Greg Hladky
10:20 AM EST, November 13, 2013
Some people like to create their own pottery. Others want to write an original story or song, or grow a new kind of tomato, or build a house like no one's ever seen before.
Rosanna Petrella came up with Cape Moonshine: her very own extra-distilled, 80-proof, gluten-free, made-from-heirloom-corn liquor.
The original inspiration for creating her own liquor came about because "My son was doing a project for school about George Washington," Petrella explains. She was surprised to learn that this father of our country also happened to be "one of the largest distillers in the United States."
That historical factoid led to discussions about America's Prohibition era and thoughts about a bootlegging legend from her husband Matt's hometown on Cape Cod. The story, says Petrella, was that rum runners used to land their illegal cargos at the end of a beach road in Hyannis.
It was an interesting combination, one that ultimately resulted in Cape Moonshine.
Petrella, 43, started working on her project about two years ago, and the first 1,000 bottles of her concoction have just come out of Westford Hill Distillers in Ashford.
The high-powered stuff that's in those bottles technically can't be called "whiskey" because of some arcane federal rules about percentage of alcohol after the distillation process, says Louis Chatey, co-owner of Westford Hills.
Chatey says he worked closely with Petrella and her husband to make the recipe commercially viable. "But it's her baby all the way," says Chatey.
The Petrellas live in Avon with their four children. The couple have plenty of experience in the wholesale and distribution end of the wine and liquor industry. The focus of Rosanna's regular job happens to be "high-quality European wines" for restaurants and wine stores in the region.
The idea that she might be able to "produce [a whiskey-style liquor] on a small-scale, artisanal basis" was intriguing to Petrella. Talking with a friend who happens to be allergic to anything with gluten in it but who still likes to drink, also got her thinking about the possibilities of a gluten-free product.
Matt Petrella says what followed was a lot of research into whiskey recipes and old-time formulas for making booze. Next, they had to find a really good micro-distiller willing and able to make Rosanna's project a reality.
"We didn't want to be making stuff that tasted like it came out of our bathtub," Matt says.
Chatey and his Ashford-based craft distillery turned out to be the answer.
Lou and his wife Margaret have been in the distilling business for more than 15 years. Their products include award-winning clear brandy (known by the French designation "eau-de-vie"), organic vodka and other liquors, mostly from Connecticut-grown fruits.
The Chateys have also distilled some different types of liquors for others on a contract basis, and they agreed to do the same for the Petrellas.
Lou Chatey says he worked closely with Rosanna to turn her ideas into a commercial recipe that could pass federal inspection. "We just cleaned it up, took off the harsh edges," he explains.
The recipe includes using an heirloom variety of corn called "Virginia White Gourd Seed," which the Petrellas now import from North and South Carolina.
"[Next] summer we're planning on experimenting with growing it up here," says Matt.
Making Cape Moonshine includes a four-step distillation process, so that what emerges is a whopping 168-proof clear alcohol. Chatey explains that the rest of the process results in a product that is actually only 80 proof.
"Essentially, it's a white whiskey... that really drinks like a premium vodka at the end of the day," Matt says.
The Cape Moonshine name came in part from the town on Cape Cod where Matt Petrella was raised, and stories about how bootleggers used to land their illegal booze at a dock on a beach in Hyannis.
Rosanna is now hustling to convince high-end restaurants and liquor stores in Connecticut to give her artisanal inspiration a try.
"I grew up in Connecticut," says Petrella. "This is part-time now... and I really wanted to start small," she explains.
The Petrellas' ultimate goal, assuming this first thousand-bottle run succeeds, is to make Cape Moonshine into a full-time business and have it available all across New England.
George Washington would probably be very proud.