Last week, Lady Friend clued me in to something she noticed while flipping through the Improper Bostonian.
It seems that a craft distillery had opened in Boston.
Let’s just get everybody on the same page here. A distillery. Not a brewery. Breweries make beer. We have a bunch of those in/around Boston… Sam Adams and Harpoon being the most well-known. Not talking about that. Distilleries make distilled spirits. Liquor. Rum. Vodka. Gin. Whiskey. Tequila. Brandy. All of them start the same way, from a distilled spirit. You have a grain or a fruit, and you add yeast. The yeast feeds on the sugars, and makes alcohol. Put the whole thing in a big still, boil off the alcohol, condense it back into liquid. That is a distilled spirit, as basic as I can explain it.
And for the first time since Prohibition, they’re doing it in Boston.
Ok. Yeah. That picture is kind of anti-climactic. But the future is in there.
Rewind. Immediately after finding out this place existed, I fired off an email to the distillery asking/begging/pleading/hoping for a look inside their doors. I got a very friendly response back saying
We usually do production in the morning, although we can meet any time.
Let us know a time that works. Cheers.”
Taking a personal day from work (hey, I had a dentist appointment too), I made my way to a section of South Boston known as the Newmarket District, a sort of no-man’s-land of industrial zoning, warehouses, food-processing plants and a prison.
I poked my head in the door, wondering if I was in the right place. And then I saw it.
It doesn’t look like much, unless you know what you’re looking at. Some counters, a desk with laptop, bottles of liquid, some giant plastic containers, and A STILL. A combination copper pot still with dual reflux columns. I hesitantly walked in, and met Dave Willis, the co-founder along with his brother, Will. They grew up on a farm in Sherborn, MA, near Natick/Framingham, and have been passionate about distilling for some time. The whole process of starting a distillery really became a possibility in 2003 when Massachusetts passed legislation allowing farms to use their products for distilling. Dave and Will looked for inspiration from their grandfather’s vault of Prohibition-era liquors, and took the name of his favorite horse, Bully Boy, as the title of the distillery, keeping a strong connection to the family farm.
They finally decided “now or never” and began to battle the bureaucratic forces of federal, state, and city licensing boards. Now, Massachusetts is not known for its easygoing and understanding liquor laws, and I can’t even imagine what they went through to get everything approved. Even with their backgrounds in law and real estate, it was not an easy process. Dave says one of the major sticking points was the building permit from the City of Boston, and they had to explain many times what the distilling process was, and that their building wouldn’t suddenly explode in a fireball of moonshine. Somehow, everything got done, they leased the building, ordered some German distilling equipment, and began making Bacchanalian nectar.
Dave gave me a tour of the space, and an overview on their process. Most spirits at Bully Boy start from wheat. Originally, they wanted to source it locally, but no Massachusetts farm was up to the task, so their red winter wheat comes from Aurora Mills & Farm in Maine, and is all-organic.
The rum uses blackstrap molasses from New Orleans, stored in giant plastic bins. Apparently it’s a colossal mess to work with, and the still has to be hosed down after every rum run.
This is the mash fermenting. The yeast is feeding on the sugars from either the wheat or the molasses (I don’t remember which liquor this was) and creating alcohol and carbon dioxide, hence the bubbles. At this point, it’s around 12% abv, and is essentially beer. The cogeners from the last batch can be added in here to bump up the abv to around 18% before distilling, and add some extra flavor.
So. The silver drum on the left separates the liquid from the solids. From there it goes to the wonky looking copper piece in the middle, which is a pot still. Steam heats up the bottom, and begins to boil off the alcohol into vapor. It collects in the top of the pot still and goes into the first column still. This vaporizes the liquid again, and it travels up the column in stages (each one of those little portholes is another level). For a vodka, they send the distillate up through the SECOND column as well. Eventually, everything winds up in the silver column on the far right, which is the condenser. The vapor is cooled back down to a liquid, and comes out of the spout as alcohol in the neighborhood of 80abv, or 150 proof.
Ok. Now you’ve got liquor. What do you do with it? Well, if it’s vodka, you filter out all the impurities to make it as neutral as possible, dilute it down to 80 proof and bottle it. Done. If it’s a white rum, you dilute to 80 proof and bottle. A white (clear) whiskey is a little trickier. To be called whiskey, you have to age it, otherwise it’s just unaged wheat spirit. Bully Boy ages theirs for eight hours. They tried 24 hours, but got too much smokey char flavor that they didn’t want.
That takes care of the clear liquors. The aged liquors have to be, well, aged. The amber colors of whiskey and rum come from time spent in wood (oak) casks, as the liquors absorb the colors and flavors of the wood. This is where you get vanilla in rum, and the smokey char in whiskey. Bully Boy expects to age their rum for about 8-9 months, and the whiskey for about a year and a half. Or whenever it’s ready. Basically, throw it in the barrel until it tastes good.
So while the aged liquors were busy aging, Dave let me taste the clear varieties. We started with the vodka.
Nose: Alcohol. No other smells. Clean.
Taste/Mouthfeel: With vodka, there really shouldn’t be anything to taste, so you have to go with smoothness and mouthfeel. This one was pleasing, without an oily or syrupy mouthfeel. Some vodkas will coat your mouth and feel almost slippery. Not this one.
Very clean, very good.
Wheat Whiskey (White)
Nose: Banana. Alcohol burn.
Taste: Sweet, fruity. Banana. Apparently the banana essence comes from the use of wheat, which is why you get that aroma/flavor in a wheat/wit/hefeweizen beer. Young whiskey, so there is a mouth-numbing alcohol finish. Much mellower with a splash of water, allows the flavors to come through past the burn. Yum.
Nose: Sweet. Alcoholic nose sting. Vanilla buried under alcohol.
Taste: Vanilla up front, sugar finish. Sweet, but not fruit; brown sugar sweet.
As Dave describes: “Like an aged, dark rum that isn’t aged.” Perfect.
Check our official reviews of the Bully Boy lineup:
For our Bully Boy white whiskey review click here: Bully Boy White Whiskey
For our Bully Boy rum review click here: Bully Boy Rum
For our Bully Boy American Straight Whiskey review click here: Bully Boy ASW
For our Bully Boy vodka review click here: Bully Boy Vodka
The white rum was my favorite of the three. Despite all three spirits being (nearly) unaged, the rum had the most flavor (ok, I guess the vodka doesn’t count, so it’s just compared to the whiskey). I am a whiskey fan, and did enjoy the white, but wasn’t as excited about the banana notes and flavors. I’ve enjoyed Maker’s Mark, which is predominantly corn, being a bourbon, but uses mostly wheat to fill the rest of the bill, giving it a clean, refreshing taste to cut some of the corn sweetness. This all-wheat variety was indeed sweet, but a bit too fruity for my taste. That said, I cannot wait to taste the aged version. It’ll still be a “younger” whiskey, aging for only a year and a half, but I’m really looking forward to a lot more of the vanilla char to play with the banana sweet.
The rum really blew me away. I wasn’t expecting so much flavor and sweetness. Coming from blackstrap molasses, you can really taste the brown sugar, without a syrupy mouthfeel. Dave had several varieties of rum as comparisons, and even had an agricole variety that smelled like tomato paste. He said it tasted awful, and I’m inclined to believe him. The aged rum should be a real star after snoozing in red wine casks for 8 months, and I’m really looking forward to it. I plan to buy a bottle of the white as soon as I get to a liquor store that carries their brand (there’s one in Southie near the distillery, but it didn’t occur to me to stop by until I was halfway home).
This really was a visit to my happy place. Dave could not have been more helpful and welcoming, and I even called him a liquor geek at one point, which he freely agreed to. The passion is evident at this distillery, and they’ve made a very important step, becoming the first to make it this far in Boston. Hopefully it will make the process a bit easier for more distillers to follow, as with the craft brewery revolution of the 1980s. Bully Boy is the first craft distiller in Boston in over 75 years, and went up against one of the most notoriously juvenile alcohol legislative states in New England. And succeeded. They have a great attitude, a beautiful space, and great products. Now go buy their stuff and support this local business trying to get you drunk.
Website: Bully Boy Distillers
(Very nicely done site, also good photography by Heath Robbins. Check out his writeup on the shoot here.)
Blog: Read it here.