“I think a lot of people consider, rightly so, whiskey as America’s spirit,” says Will Willis, co-owner at Bully Boy Distillery. “We would counteract by saying that rum was the original American spirit.”
Will and his brother Dave Willis started Bully Boy Distillers in Boston. The city, once an international epicenter for the sale of rum during the ancient spice trade, hadn’t been home to a distillery since before Prohibition.
“Truth be told, historically the rum that was made here was known as being…of a cheaper variety. It was not necessarily notable for its excellence. It was really just a bunch of colonials looking to get drunk cheaply,” says Will.
Like many other rum fans, Will is a bit of a history buff. He also dives into the story of the Boston Molasses Disaster in 1919. A large storage tank from the Purity Distilling Company collapsed, and more than two million gallons of molasses oozed into the streets of Boston’s North End neighborhood. The molasses killed 21 people and several horses. “It was awful,” Will says somberly as if he witnessed it. “There are legends that if you visit the Wharf on a hot day you can still smell the molasses from the streets on which it flowed.”
Will finishes his story with a joke about how he and Dave won’t ever have the same problem. The brothers know their stuff when it comes to making spirits. They got their start as amateur cider makers. They grew up on a farm in small town Sherborn, Massachusetts, where they raised cattle and had an orchard onsite. Also onsite is a vault in the basement of the farmhouse that contained a collection of local artisan spirits during Prohibition. This vault, and the apple cider that they made with their family, inspired the creation of a new distillery.
“Natural curiosity led to the discovery of hard cider,” says Will. “Eventually, we got a little two-gallon stovetop still and experimented with that for many years. We were hobbyists for a long time [before going pro].”
The brothers also did distilling apprenticeships with Koval Distillery in Chicago and Copper Run Distillery in the Ozark Mountains in Missouri before they opened the distillery in 2010.
“Bully Boy was the name of a workhorse my great-grandfather owned, and who lived on the farm where we grew up. The name Bully Boy was a reference to a term coined by his college roommate, Teddy Roosevelt, who use to say ‘Bully for you!’ meaning superb or excellent,” says Will. “We thought the name had a nice ring to it, and liked the tie in to our family’s farm.”
Bully Boy makes organic white rum, dark rum, white whiskey, vodka, and wheat whiskey. Their dark rum is named Boston Rum to tap into Boston’s long rum tradition. Unlike many of the rums that came out of the area the colonial days, their spirit is made with quality ingredients, aged in wine casks, and tasted every two weeks to ensure flavor. Rum has come a long way. Purveyors like the Willis Brothers are fostering its resurgence.
Spirits from Bully Boy: