WHO: Dave Willis
WHAT: Raised on a farm in Sherborn that once produced Prohibition-era alcohol, Willis and his brother Will (left, with Dave) left corporate jobs in 2010 to found Bully Boy Distillers in Roxbury, Boston’s only craft distillery. Their unaged white whiskey and vodka each won a gold medal from the Beverage Testing Institute in Chicago. Since June, their products have been bought by 150 area liquor stores and 100 bars, and they’ve expanded to Rhode Island.
Q. How did your heritage influence Bully Boy?
A. We grew up making craft products - they weren’t called craft products back then - but jams, jellies, especially cider. As we got older, we started making hard cider and it wasn’t much of a leap from hard cider to stove-top distilling. In the basement of the farmhouse in Sherborn is this old fieldstone vault that literally has a big steel bank vault door as an entrance. Inside was all this old Prohibition-era and pre-Prohibition-era booze. Some bottles date back to the late 1800s. This was our great-grandfather’s and our grandfather’s collection of old hooch.
Q. How much of a leap was it to go from a lawyer managing commercial real estate negotiations to distilling?
A. Will and I had become fed up with our respective careers. Doing something that we weren’t happy doing was more stressful than taking the plunge into distilling. But certainly there’s that strange moment when you’re standing in the middle of the distillery, staring at a huge 150-gallon copper pot still, and you have to second-guess your sanity.
Q. What were the early days like?
A. We were self-distributing. We had what’s called a farmer-distillery license that allowed us to basically sell hooch out of the back of our car. I’d take one case and drive it to a store in Somerville and Will would be driving two cases out to Worcester. It was just crazy.
Q. Who was crucial to your early success?
A. Jackson Cannon at the Hawthorne, Kate Moore at L’Espalier, Noon [S. Inthasauwan] at Umami in Brookline, and Bob McCoy at Island Creek Oyster Bar came to the distillery early on. I think L’Espalier was the second account. And because they’re influential bartenders, what they said carried a lot of weight. And for us to be able to say, “Island Creek Oyster Bar has a great rum cocktail that uses our unaged rum,’’ that resonated when you’d go to a liquor store and they wanted to know, are these guys for real?
Q. How did the drinks catch on with the public?
A. A confluence of different movements: One would be craft, people really caring about where their products come from, the methods used to make those products, and where the ingredients are sourced from. The rise in mixology has been enormous, bartenders who take the science of craft and cocktails seriously. And the organic movement. Our vodka and whiskey are both made from organic grains.
Q. Are Bostonians excited to drink something produced close to home?
A. I think 20 years ago, people would have scoffed at the idea of whiskey made in Boston. Now people are stoked about that and want to go see where it’s made.
Q. Why was Boston devoid of a craft distillery?
A. I think people were perfectly happy drinking vodka from France and bourbon made in Kentucky. Now you look at any region in the country, there’s a micro-distillery there. And urban distilling is starting to become more prevalent. It’s a really exciting time.
Q. Do you anticipate local competition soon?
A. What’s great is a city like Boston can accommodate more than one distillery. Portland, Ore., I think, has eight micro-distilleries. So there are regions that are smaller than us that are supporting multiple distilleries. Micro-distilling is not for the faint of heart. Like any major trend, I think there’s going to be a boom and possibly a bust, where you have a lot of people that get over-leveraged, with overly optimistic sales projections. But certainly at this point, it’s early enough on in the movement and there’s a lot of room for additional players.
Interview was condensed and edited. Glenn Yoder can be reached at email@example.com.