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Bully Boy Distillers move past Prohibition

Published: Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Updated: Wednesday, December 7, 2011 02:12

Billy Boy Bottles

Courtesy Heath Robbins

The Willis brothers and their Bully Boy distillery make drinking an enjoyable experience.

Drinking in college is often an unpleasant experience. Hard alcohol, most often vodka, is purchased for the cheapest price available, then mixed with soda, juice or Kool−Aid mix — anything to mask that bite. Some discerning souls appreciate a gin and tonic or particular brand of jungle juice, but most desperate college students are just drinking to get drunk.

Will and Dave Willis of Bully Boy Distillers are looking to change that. "There's a lot of opportunity to add flavors of ginger, honey — it's almost like cooking," Dave Willis told the Daily.

The distillery makes bottles and distributes vodka, rum (light and dark) and whiskey (new and aged), and all their products are organic and as locally sourced as possible.

The process is more complicated than most consumers imagine. For vodka, it starts with grains sourced from Maine.

The grains are fermented and vaporized through a series of intimidating−looking machines, resulting in a bottle of concentrated, 120−proof alcohol. This is then filtered extensively and diluted.

Rum and whiskey are the fun parts for the Willises.

"Rum is very dear to me," Will Willis said, "and our white whiskey is the most interesting product we offer."

Dave is also a rum man, although he said that asking him to choose a favorite drink is like "asking [him] to choose a favorite child!"

Molasses is fermented and distilled in a process similar to the vodka, and both the rum and whiskey come out clear. "Most people think rum or whiskey comes out dark and we do something to make it clear, but in fact it's the other way around," Will Willis explained, holding up a clear bottle of rum. "The color comes from the tannins in the aging process."

Will and Dave Willis bottle about 60 percent of their rum and whiskey, and the rest goes in aging barrels. The barrels range from new barrels to used wine or bourbon barrels, each of which makes for a distinct flavor. Rum in a used bourbon barrel, for instance, has a distinctly sweet vanilla scent. "We leave the barrels for about eight months," Will Willis said, gesturing to the barrels stacked against the wall. "These are for our spring sales."

Across from the distilling machines is the "test kitchen," a group of mini−barrels carefully labeled with their contents and a shelf of culinary curiosities.

"We brought in a great mixologist, and she's been helping us find new flavors," Dave Willis said. "Since these are smaller quantities and there's more surface area of the barrel, we're able to age them in just a few days."

He pulled a miniature glass out of one barrel, swirled it and sniffed it expertly. "You can really smell the ginger in this one," he said, and placed the glass back down on the table. "The one thing that's a little difficult is coming in here in the morning and being like, ‘I have to drink booze right now?'"

All the alcohol is bottled and labeled in the same facility, and then the batch number is handwritten on the label, a task painstakingly undertaken by their intern, Betsy Stavis, a Boston University student of legal drinking age. From there, the bottles are packed up and distributed through a middleman to restaurants, bars and liquor stores all over Massachusetts.

Bully Boy Distillery, Boston's first artisan distillery since Prohibition, opened in June and has been growing ever since. "At the beginning, we were distributing ourselves," Will Willis said. "We'd work here till 1 p.m., then load up our cars and literally go door−to−door delivering. We'd get requests in from, you know, Cape Cod and have to say we couldn't do it."

Now, though, Bully Boy is working toward expansion into Rhode Island and New Hampshire. "We definitely want to continue to grow," Will Willis said, "but without losing that really local brand. Without losing our values."

"Local" is very important to Will and Dave Willis. The brothers, both tall with shaggy blond hair and open, friendly faces, grew up on a fourth−generation working farm in western Massachusetts, and they were always producing craft products.

"We did jams, jellies, ciders and more," said Dave Willis. "We had a little three−gallon stove distiller and it was a natural progression from cider to hard cider and eventually liquor." They learned distilling on their own and perfected their understanding of the machinery with a major distillery in Missouri.

Starting a distillery wasn't an automatic decision, however. After attending University of Richmond in Richmond, Va., and Colby College in Maine, respectively, Will Willis pursued real estate finance and Dave Willis became a lawyer.

"It's cliche," Will Willis admitted, "but we both had that moment where we were like, why don't we start doing something we really love?"

Their passion comes through clearly, both in the process and the product. Bully Boy Distillers has succeeded in making drinking — not just getting drunk — an enjoyable experience.

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