“We make our spirits in a geography that’s known nationwide, and in some ways, Boston has even more cache internationally than it does nationally.”
The Willis brothers are living a whisky-soaked dream, but not the one they first envisioned.
“We were looking to do agri-tourism and have a distillery on the farm.” Bully Boy Distillers Co-Founder Dave Willis talks about growing up with his older brother Will in the Mass exurbs. Their family has a mostly beef-based operation in the fourth-generation Charlescote Farm in Sherborn, but the brothers started making cider at a young age and wanted to branch out from there.
Dave, the head distiller, continues, “The idea was we would have the ingredients right [on the family farm], grow the corn there, etc. And my father shot that down. We thought that we could elevate to spirits, but he wasn’t having it.”
Scouting the larger world, in 2010 the Willis brothers landed in a 3,500-square foot facility with a 150-gallon still in Roxbury. Dave says of the building that is located across from their current main distillery, “Now that’s barrel storage and we still use that still for gin. Five days a week, there’s another guy across the street making gin.”
All together, their location has proven ideal.
“If you’re in the wine world, location is important because of terroir, how the ground affects the flavor. It’s less so in the spirits world,” Dave says. “[In Boston], we have access to a large urban center. So from a branding perspective, we make our spirits in a geography that’s known nationwide, and in some ways, Boston has even more cache internationally than it does nationally.”
Will, who is head of sales, adds, “We expanded here in 2017, and really the upshot was increasing production by fivefold and adding the on-site tasting bar, which has proven huge not only for the business but also for brand building. Nothing supports the mission like being able to see the sights and smell the smells.”
And there are sights and smells aplenty, including through the glass window of their speakeasy-esque sipping room. Dave takes us on a tour of his toys.
“Distilling is exactly what it sounds like,” he says. “You’re taking a large volume, and then distilling it down to a smaller volume. So we take 750 gallons at 7[%] ABV, and we end up with around 75 gallons at 130 proof. So you’re just kind of compressing the alcohol and the mash.”
Standing inches away from his 750-gallon still, Dave takes us to school: “The process starts in the mash tun, and we get 5,000-pound super sacks of corn and then we auger the corn into the mash tun. And the mash tun is steam injected, so you heat that corn up, and eventually the starch in the corn starts to leach out, and so you get this big starchy slurry. Then we use enzymes, malt primarily, to convert that starch into sugar. And then we pump it into a fermenter, add yeast, and the yeast converts that sugar into alcohol. And then from the fermenter, it goes into the still. When it’s done fermenting, you end up with what’s essentially a strong beer, and that’s ultimately what we distill.”
The pandemic hasn’t slowed the process. Rather, Bully Boy is about to expand into another neighboring building.
“At the beginning, it was like, bars and restaurants are going to close,” Dave says. “So we could still keep moving forward, but we had to hunker down. And then there were rumblings that retail liquor was going to close—it was a week of gossip in our world. … We started doing sanitizer, and then, honestly, everyone just started drinking more. That 30% [of Bully Boy products] that went to bars and restaurants was gobbled up by folks drinking more at home, stiffer pours at home, no driving home from restaurants. It was one of these weird unforeseen sides of COVID—we were wondering how we were going to keep everyone on staff, and then on the retail side we started doing well.”
“Outdoor was the next chapter after virtual, and the city made it pretty easy to permit outdoor space that pre-COVID never would have been doable,” Will says. Bully Boy also led online, offering successful group classes through the coldest months of 2020.
“I think we’re starting to see a hybrid of indoor-outdoor service across the city, and we’re no different.” Considering that he’s explaining this over a mojito in the comfort of a barrel cellar with well-distanced chairs and tables, Will is being modest.
Meanwhile, they’ve also spun out new products, including a premixed negroni, canned grapefruit spritzer liqueurs, and an Amaro bitter homage to Campari.
Those variants are true to their roots, the Willis brothers say. Whereas artificial trends, which they are reluctant to chase, come and go. Speaking of the flavored whisky rush that larger booze producers are pumping out, Will said, “We stay away from that. We can’t really afford to have a huge whiff or to invest a huge amount of money for something that consumer tastes are going to switch after six months.”
For the Willis brothers, it’s all about the long game. It took some time, but after distilling in the Hub for more than 10 years, they even managed to bring their family farm back into the mix.
“Three years ago, we planted our first corn harvest [in Sherburn],” Dave said. “We planted eight acres [about 25,000 pounds] of corn which actually went really well.”
It’s not exactly how they planned it, but with one brother making the mash and the other making the cash, Bully Boy is only getting bigger.
“It’s been a divide and conquer approach,” Dave says, “and it’s worked.”
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.