After getting laid off, 32-year printing press veteran Scott Santaniello decided to move into an industry that always seems to stand the test of time: booze, baby.
Two years ago, Santaniello, a 51-year-old life-long resident of Springfield, got a distiller’s license, launched Copper Moon and started making corn whiskey, better known as moonshine, out of rented space in the basement of the Indian Orchard Mills building.
He says it’s Springfield’s first legal distillery since Prohibition and one of only a handful in the Pioneer Valley.
A self-professed wine and whiskey guy, Santaniello started the distillery with some base knowledge of wine-making, but decided there was more of a market for hard liquor. Corn whiskey was a good starting point, he says, because it’s an alcohol his one-man operation can perfect in about 15 days. Bourbon and many whiskeys, however, take years to ready for sale. Sananiello started the distillery “on a shoestring.” His still — often the biggest expense for a start-up distillery — he designed himself and enlisted friends to help him build.
Copper Moon’s flagship shine is Devil’s Daughter. At 125-proof, it’s deceivingly smooth. It has a warm, silky flavor moonshiners refer to as the “cornbread” aroma. Pre-gaming with a nip before heading out with your designated driver? If you ask this Yankee, Devil’s Daughter goes down like buttah.
Santaniello wasn’t sure at first how people would respond to his new corn whiskey business. But as it turns out, good moonshine ain’t just for the South, and Western Mass is about to have great access to delicious shine. Santaniello struck a distribution deal with Berkshire Brewing Company of South Deerfield that started on April 2. Bottles of Devil’s Daughter are hitting racks in Massachusetts now, including those at local stores like Liquors 44, Russell’s in Amherst, Four Season’s in Hadley, Millennium Package in Northampton, Alan Street and Plaza Springfield, Eddy’s Beer and Wine in Springfield, One Stop Liquor in Springfield, and Deerfield Spirit Shoppe. In about five weeks, says Santaniello, distribution will spread beyond Massachusetts.
“When we partnered, for me it was like getting to the major leagues,” Santaniello says. “We shook hands right then and there.”
Santaniello says he hit the Internet when he first started learning how to make moonshine, tapping into an underground network of shine-makers via Facebook. He says they weren’t quick to trust, but after about six months they were Skyping and FaceTiming with Santaniello and offering up all kinds of old Dixie wisdom.
“When you start talking personally — I guess if you’re not stupid — they read between the lines and they get the sense you’re okay,” he says.
Santaniello’s recipe is 55 percent corn and includes barley, sweet feed, and rye. Everything that goes into his beloved boozes, he says, is grown in the U.S.
“I tried to keep to the heritage of the South and what the people of the South consider a true moonshine,” Santaniello says.
The moonshine magic starts in the 500-liter mash tank, where Santaniello steeps his grains in 160-degree water for an hour to release their natural sugars. After letting it cool, he adds yeast and strains the “wash” into the still, where it ferments for 8 to 12 days, or until it’s about 20 percent alcohol.
From mash to the finished alcohol takes about 15 days. Once the finished alcohol comes out of the worm condenser — a piping system that snakes its way around a steel barrel, connected to the still via a copper pipe along the ceiling — Santaniello uses the senses born to him by the booze gods to know what’s what. The top of the batch, the “foreshot,” has to be gotten rid of. “It’s literally poisonous,” he says. Beneath the foreshot is the “head,” which he says is the blander portion of the batch, and after that is the “heart” — “that’s what you want.” The tail end of the batch, the “tails,” is strong in flavor so Santaniello mixes it with the head to give it oomph. “You put heads and tails together to make hearts,” he says.
“When you do it a lot and if you have the common sense, you can see and feel the difference.”
Santaniello says he often begins his day distilling at 3 a.m. A constant flow of coffee and Van Halen keep him motivated.
“I like getting in before the sun rises, drinking a cup of coffee and listening to the birds chirp,” Santaniello says. He barely has enough time to drink the final product, but he says sampling finished batches is a must.
“I’m constantly thinking about this place,” Santaniello says. “I’m excited to go to sleep because the sooner I do, the sooner I get here in the morning.”
Another of his products, the 80-proof Apple Pie Moonshine, is distilled with local cider and goes great with cider and ginger ale. Also, look for his first batch of bourbon next spring.•
Contact Amanda Drane at firstname.lastname@example.org.