Four Guys & a Distillery
Walking into a restaurant and placing your kiwi on the bar next to your cell phone and car keys takes more than a bit of moxie. If you want this to go your way, dress smartly and have an I-know-exactly-what-I-want look in your eye. Oh, and most important, make sure the kiwi is ripe and peeled.
For many people, skinning a soft kiwi is as awkward and challenging as giving a Brazilian wax to a flying squirrel, so no bartender should ever be given the nonsensical task of preparing this silly fruit for your cocktail. Now that you've established your position as a well-prepared, no-nonsense patron, tactfully hand the kiwi to the bartender and with the warmest smile you can muster ask them to make you an Emerald Crush—but not with the house stuff. Ask for Cape Cod Vodka, otherwise it’s not an Emerald Crush (although O’Brien’s Vodka can be substituted, but we’ll get to that later).
So where does one find the ingredients for an Emerald Crush? That would be on the AstraLuna Brands website, astraluna.com. AstraLuna Brand’s distillery is fueled by four men who make Cape Cod Vodka and Cape Cod Great White Rum, among other ultra premium spirits, but if you meet one of these guys and mention an Emerald Crush you might just get a vacant stare, like the one I got when I met two of them at the Taste of Chatham event this past July.
“An Emerald what?" Joe Sullivan asked. “The cocktail you created using your vodka and a kiwi,” I told him. Joe turned to his partner, Jonathan Fryer. “Jon, you ever hear of a...a…uh....what did you call it again?”
“An Emerald Crush,” I repeated. “The cocktail with muddled kiwi.” Long pause. “Kiwi?” Fryer asked. “Uh...Is it any good?” I reminded them that the recipe was on their website, which triggered a longer pause and some head scratching. “Gotta be Andrew!” Fryer grinned. “Sounds tasty!” Sullivan assumed.
Andrew McCabe is partner number three. A real estate developer in the Boston area, McCabe spends his “spare time” as AstraLuna Brand’s Chief Distiller and Director of Operations, creating ingredients for the distillery, concocting colorful cocktails that feature their various rums and vodkas, and maintaining the company website, all of which can explain how a cocktail featuring mashed up kiwi can slip through the net before the other three team members can see it.
McCabe’s parents live in Cotuit, and since 1972 he has spent a good percentage of his life floating in Cape Cod waters, staring up at the stars from his parent’s catboat. He became an avid sailor and windsurfer on Cape Cod, but tinkering has always been his raison d’etre. While attending Bowdoin College in Maine for Asian studies (he lived in China and speaks fluent Mandarin), McCabe started brewing beer for his buddies, and that progressed into wine. He speaks passionately about the importance of researching...well, everything. The guy loves to research—what’s the best equipment, where’s the tastiest local molasses, why there’s no substitute for Denmark yeast— and just when you think you’re trapped on the phone with a total science geek, his passion takes a sharp turn into something altogether different; “something everyone should learn to do,” he tells me: competitive ballroom dancing, which is a hobby he’s not only become regionally well respected for, but an activity that somehow replaced his prior hobby of racing cars, which he previously enjoyed with his friend, Jonathan Fryer. While I’m pondering fire retardant racing gear versus sensible dance shoes, McCabe is on to explaining the scientific process required to create the perfect gin.
“Did ya hear Andrew gave up racing with me for ballroom dancing?” Fryer jokes over the phone. Having some background as coowner of Watch City Brewing Company in Waltham, Jonathan “Jono” Fryer is involved in the distilling process and is AstraLuna Brand’s Director of Legal and Government Affairs. Fryer still races— in spite of his Porsche 911 burning up on the tracks—and talks about his Spec Miata and ‘65 Sunbeam Tiger like they’re his children. (He even spoils them like children, building them the Whiskey Hills Speedway in Palmer, Mass). Fryer, who lives in Sandwich, is harder to conversationally corral on the phone then McCabe. A practicing attorney with offices in Dover and Chatham, Fryer’s focus curiously keeps returning to maritime history and folklore. While talking about his law practice, somehow some sea captain named Lorenzo Baker from Yarmouth enters the conversation.
“You don’t know about Captain Baker?!?” Fryer asks. “He was the first guy to bring bananas to the states (via Jamaica to Boston) and became the world’s largest grower and shipper of tropical fruits!” He also happens to be the namesake of AstraLuna’s Captain Baker’s Cape Cod Flavored Rum, an all-natural, 80-proof blend of coconut, papaya, mango and pineapple from the West Indies.
“You know about the legend of Crook Jaw, right?” I don’t, so with the energy of an Evinrude motor, Fryer regales the legend of Captain Ichabod Paddock, who apparently spent time living inside the belly of a sperm whale alongside Satan and a flirtatious sea witch (I should have seen this coming). The whale, named Crook Jaw, became the namesake of Crook Jaw’s Cape Cod Amber Rum, an extremely smooth, beautifully colored rum that’s first aged in copper, and then in previously used bourbon barrels. The result is a sipping rum that ranks up with some of the best I’ve ever tasted. Fryer has reeled me in, hook, line and sinker, and I’m wanting more. “Who is your O’Brien’s Vodka named after?” I ask, expecting another salty sea tale. “O’Brien? That’s our buddy Vin, the rock star!”
I already know Vinnie O’Brien is a musician. He’s the only guy of the four who is nowhere to be found when our phone appointment arises. An hour and a half later, O’Brien, AstraLuna Brand’s “Distillery Bard”, calls in. “Sorry, man, I was at a real estate closing.” O’Brien hails from Scituate and is not just the namesake for O’Brien’s (triple distilled) Vodka, he’s the harmonica player for The Gratefuls, a well respected group of friends and family who have a great time rocking the South Shore.
When he isn’t singing, playing percussion or blowing his harp—a craft he took up to help the time go by while hitchhiking between home and the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut—O’Brien shares a law practice with Fryer. Several decades ago the two opened Watch City Brewery in Waltham, setting the tone for things to come.
“I grew up in Jamaica Plain and spent a great deal of my life in and around the restaurants and bars of Boston,” O’Brien tells me. “While I was going to law school I opened a restaurant called O’Brien’s Cafe in Fairfield, Connecticut with my future bride Maryanne. I ran the kitchen.” When asked how the first of the AstraLuna line got the O’Brien name, he offers, “I’m from first generation Irish parents and I just wanted to create something to honor the entire O’Brien clan. The other thing is...did you ever notice at the bar all the Irish whiskeys, but no Irish vodkas?”
O’Brien’s Vodka is perfectly smooth and has a slight vanilla finish which backs up what McCabe told me the day before, and what O’Brien repeats to me now: “We spent a lot of time perfecting this stuff so we can compete with the best labels.” O’Brien is happy to share the spotlight with AstraLuna’s newest vodka, made from Cape Cod potatoes. “That’s Joe’s doing,” Vinnie says. “The potato farmer is his neighbor!”
Harwich resident Joe Sullivan went to kindergarten with Fryer, has known O’Brien since his college days, and befriended McCabe ten years ago at a Christmas party. Like Andrew McCabe, Sullivan’s background is building custom homes in the Boston area, but unlike McCabe, Sullivan’s career was cut short by a devastating work-related accident in 2012 that left him a paraplegic. I’ve already heard about many of Sullivan’s accomplishments from his three business partners, who brag about their friend racing in two NYC marathons, kayaking, playing in basketball and tennis tournaments, skiing, sailing and piloting his plane around the New England skies—all since the accident.
An accomplished athlete, Sullivan is a USPTA Certified Wheelchair Teaching Tennis Pro. To say his life took a dramatic turn would be the great white whale of understatements, but Sullivan holds on to a philosophy that continues to drive him. He doesn’t speak of the human spirit, the drive to want more, or about fighting adversity and winning. What fuels Sullivan’s fire he sums up in five words—and never have I heard these words spoken with more absolute depth of truth: “I like to have FUN!” he exclaims. It makes sense. What better way to have fun than make liquor with a few of your closest buddies? But the physical outcome of the accident wasn’t the only major change for Sullivan.
“When I was a builder, I was managing up to 35 subcontractors at a time. It was high stress and with a lot of people depending on me: homeowners, contractors. Now with AstraLuna, I make spirits, host tastings, knock on doors and meet people for a living!” Sullivan is AstraLuna Brand’s Distiller and Director of Sales and Marketing, and one heck of an idea man. One of the people Sullivan met recently was his Harwich neighbor, farmer Brent Hemeon. Hemeon’s farm gave Sullivan the idea that launched a thousand spuds...and Cape Cod Vodka.
Cape & Islands Distillers
To simply say that farmer Brent Hemeon has a green thumb would be like saying wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. has “pretty good hands”. Over the years Hemeon’s Harwich Port farm has yielded Swiss chard, spinach, sugar snaps, golden beets, mustard greens, peas, asparagus, corn, radishes, turnips, English cucumbers, tomatoes, cranberries, cantaloupes, cherries, Pinot Noir grapes, 40-50 apple varieties, and more. Local businesses have highlighted his hard work all over their menus, making Hemeon Farm beloved to Cape Codders.
“My neighbor, Joe, asked me if I’d grow potatoes for his distillery. I grew a couple of hundred pounds, saved a few for myself and he got the rest,” Hemeon tells. “I don’t even know how much vodka it produced.” (It yielded 500 bottles.) This year Hemeon has five 100-foot long rows of potatoes being grown exclusively for AstraLuna’s new venture, Cape & Islands Distillers, and hopes are the yield will be three times more than last year’s crop.
In the global scheme of things these numbers don’t sound like all that much, but Cape Cod Vodka (and Cape Cod Great White Rum, which features a thirsty shark on the inside of the bottle, rather than the outside label), are sold exclusively east of the canal, giving them a real chance to saturate our little market.
AstraLuna is currently distilling in Medfield under the watchful eye of their full-time hired gun and “Brand Ambassador” Jeff Rodd of Natick, and will be opening Cape & Islands Distillers this fall. Most likely the new distillery will be located in Sandwich, but future plans for a larger, mid-Cape facility are already underway.
Where they take this ride is anyone’s guess, but what is obvious is that these men have bottled their Cape Cod spirit into their Cape Cod spirits. Cape Cod Pumpkin Spice Cream Liquor, Sippiwisset Gin, Whydah Cape Cod Dark Rum, Old Ringo Tequila, and a local apple brandy are all on the distillery blackboard—great news for local growers, retailers and restaurants, and especially good news for people who, like the four guys from AstraLuna Brands and Cape & Island Distillers, like to have fun.
If you run into McCabe, Fryer, O’Brien or Sullivan at your local watering hole, make sure to say a hearty hello, take out your peeled kiwi, and buy them an Emerald Crush. Just don’t ask them what’s in it.
Tom Dott is co-owner of the Lamb and Lion Inn on Cape Cod. Previously, Tom and his partner Ali Pitcher owned and operated a 4-diamond Relais and Chateaux property in New York’s Hudson Valley, which featured a menu dedicated to all things local. Tom is an Elvis impersonator, has received three national Eddy writing awards and is two-time runner up. As an Elvis impersonator he remains awardless.