I am excited to be back with new content after taking a hiatus to finish my book Small Batch: The Return of Artisanal Pickles, Cheese, Chocolate, and Spirits to be published in October. In the coming months I will share some stories from my research that aren’t covered in as much detail in the book. I look forward to continuing my research on food artisans and am always open to hearing about your favorite artisan or food item. Dave and Will Willis of Bully Boy Distillery in Boston were generous enough to speak with me in late 2012. Below is representative of that visit, so please note that their story has continued as Bully Boy has grown since that time. Congrats on the success, Bully Boy – and thank you again for your time!
I walked into the non-descript warehouse space, the air cool in late fall, but the smell of vanilla and caramel in the air. Dave Willis was filling label-less bottles with the dark liquid by hand, a dozen boxes on the floor at his feet full of full bottles, with more empties lining the utilitarian counter on either side of him.
“You caught us at final exam time,” Will Willis told me. “We have a big order to fill.” They had gotten to the distillery at 7 in the morning. It was only 10 when I arrived.
“Smells great in here,” I said. “What are you bottling?” Will explained that this was their first batch of dark whiskey – dark from its time spent aging and different from the clear un-aged whiskey they sold in the earliest stages of their distillery. He said I was right to identify the vanilla and caramel notes – this whiskey was aged in new American oak barrels, which, as Dave explains, have a high glucose, or sugar, content, with the insides “charred” – or lit on fire to caramelize some of that sugar – before being filled with the whiskey. Straight whiskey, as defined by government regulations, requires that a grain alcohol has spent at least two years in such new charred oak barrels. “We’ve been waiting for this,” Will explained, noting that the whiskey had been aging since about the time they started their business in 2010. “And now it’s releasing on Monday.”
The warehouse itself was bare-bones and basic. Much like a giant version of what I might imagine a home-distiller’s basement might look like – plastic wrapped pallets along the wall, flattened boxes with a large “Made in America” logo on each in a random pile on the floor, two workmen tinkering with the HVAC, next to the large masher drum and still that any home distiller would kill to own. Shiny copper and steel reached more than ten feet into the air. This pot and column still hybrid was clearly the gem in their family-run operation. Will explained how the system worked. In the large metal masher drum they mixed the basic ingredients – for rum, for example, they added 90 gallons of choice molasses to 300 gallons of water, processing that and eventually adding the yeast. Other liquors like whiskey or vodka, would use some combination of grain in place of the molasses.
The tall column still is made up of stacked chambers, which gives the brothers the flexibility to refine their spirits to varying proofs – the more chambers used for distillation, the higher the “proof” or alcohol content of the liquor. Vodka, for example, is refined the most, resulting in a 95% alcoholic product that cut with water to reduce to 160 proof – or 80% alcohol.
The distilling and bottling areas of the warehouse make up one half of the large, open but cluttered space, with the adjacent room, separated by a partial wall, holding racks of barrels. Will explained that for their rum, they did something a bit unique, using both used wine and whiskey barrels to age their spirit, which they then combine. This both helps to distinguish their product, but also provides some continuity in flavor – with combining two barrels of product they can adjust each batch to be very similar to another.
This is one of the benefits to being a small batch company, Will explained. He and his brother were always trying their product, tweaking their technique, and using sensory analysis (smell, taste, sight) to keep “total control” over their product. While the two of them – with help from their mother, who showed up as I was leaving to help label and shrink-wrap the bottles – do every job, except much of their sales and distribution, now that they have signed with a distributor – it is product development that they are most excited about. Their goal is to be to Boston for spirits what Harpoon Brewery is to the city for beer. And they are well on their way as the first craft distillery in Boston since prohibition.
Will admits that marketing and promotion is some of the hardest work – especially for small businessmen who feel pulled in many directions and whose first priority is the product itself – but they have worked hard to distinguish themselves with packaging and branding. The name Bully Boy comes from a great family story – their great grandfather was college roommates with Theodore Roosevelt at Harvard and later bought a farm, on which he had a horse named after his friend – Bully Boy. The farm was eventually taken over by the Willis’s grandfather and the brothers spent many hours playing in and among their grandfather’s fieldstone vault, which once held spirits during prohibition.
“The farm is emblematic of our destiny,” Will told me. “Dave and I would go down to the vault and soak up inspiration” during the weeks and months when they were plotting the start of Bully Boy. But back then the distillery didn’t have a name. One day they looked at an old plaque from the 1920s, with a horseshoe and inscription to the horse Bully Boy. They felt that they had hit about the perfect name. The Willis brothers started Bully Boy Distillery in Boston, Massachusetts in part inspired by their family history. In the midst of the recession, they called upon those childhood memories to start their own business. Like so many other food and drink artisans who began around this time, helping to start what some are dubbing the new artisanal food revolution, The Bully Boy founders state that they “were very much byproducts of the economy…. We both felt threatened by lay-offs and … Learned to take our future into our own hands.” So, inspired by their family history of moonshining – and their childhood hobby of making cider, and later hard cider and other fermented and distilled products – they started Bully Boy Distillery.
Their business philosophy is practical one. They source as much locally as possible – partly because it is cheaper and they can have more control over the quality. But items like molasses, which they need for their Boston Rum, can’t be sourced locally. They also acknowledge that they have considered the provenance of their bottles, corks, and labels, but only the boxes can be sourced locally. It is as much about sustainable business in the financial sense as in the environmental sense. Their focus is on quality – but they are also conscious about branding; being in Boston, for example, was very important to them from an historical and marketing perspective.
They also recognize that the market is on its way to exponential growth – the number of distilleries are expected to double in the next decade (the national numbers on small distilleries have already more than doubled in the past ten years) – and while they are currently the only distillery in Boston they doubt it will stay that way. They also liken the current state of the industry to the micro-brewery boom in the late 1980s and 1990s, which brought a flood of new beer makers to the market, with some, like Harpoon, still in business and doing quite well. So their focus is on becoming a strong brand while retaining quality – something they can control with the two of them doing all of the distilling. They are also conscious of their labeling and packaging and of the potential future need to streamline their business narrative as they expand to more crowded markets.
In terms of their business – and perhaps this is a byproduct of being the first distillery in Boston – they are hesitant to use the term micro-distillery (“too scientific,” Will said) and the term artisanal, while accurate, according to Will, is fraught with a lot of assumptions and connotations. They want to be accessible and in their immediate market, they sometimes see that term as alienating. They prefer “craft distillery” and their goal is to stay as competitive as possible in the coming years.
Since I visited Bully Boy, they have cemented themselves as Boston’s premier local distiller, offering two styles of rum, aged and un-aged whiskey, and vodka – three of which are organic. Their products are now available in three states and they have begun offering tours that are often sold out months in advance. With packaging inspired by their familial Prohibition inspiration, Bully Boy does promise a taste of history.