Q & A: Starting a Distillery

By John Peabody
April 20, 2012

Brothers Will and Dave Willis launched the Boston-based craft distillery Bully Boy in 2011. It’s the first distillery in Boston since prohibition and one of many new small batch distilleries that have sprang up across the U.S. in the last few years. Reuters Small Business interviewed Dave Willis over email about launching Bully Boy and what he’s learned along the way.

How long did it take to go from deciding to start a distillery and actually distilling? And what were the biggest obstacles? Funding? Licensing?

Moving from the idea of a distillery to actually distilling took about a year and a half. Nothing about the process was easy. We knew we wanted to be in Boston, so one of the biggest challenges was finding suitable manufacturing space. We need fifteen-foot ceilings for our still, concrete floors, and either a loading dock or bay doors. Most of the industrial space in Boston is either way too big, or small, cramped, and raw. Funding the operation wasn’t easy either. We started looking for capital in 2010. The economy was improving, but there still wasn’t much appetite for risk, and starting a distillery is very risky. What’s more, the risk is difficult to assess because the banks have no point of comparison. We ended up raising cash through friends, family, and anyone who was willing to listen. Then, of course, there is the licensing component. Don’t even get me started.

Neither of you guys had launched a business before, right? So what part of starting a business had the steepest learning curve? Accounting, the actual craft of distilling? Marketing? Sales? Pricing?

You find out very quickly what does and does not suit your personality. My brother Will gravitated towards sales. I gravitated towards production. Neither of us gravitated towards accounting and collection, so after four months of self-distribution and the headaches that go along with it, we outsourced that part of the business. The most difficult part of the business is allocating your time. There are so many different things that need to get done…production, social media, sales, account support, innovation. If you are not organized, some part of the business is going to suffer. That’s not something you learn in a corporate setting.

Did you join any professional organizations or have any mentors that helped you along the way?

We worked with Copper Run Distillery down in Missouri and Koval out in Chicago. Both distilleries were a huge help, but most of what we learned, we learned through experience.

Can you talk a little about how you’ve used social media?

I’m not sure we could have done this ten, fifteen years ago. The ability to shape how people see your product without spending thousands of dollars on advertising has been enormous. Social media also allows people to get to know the two guys making the hooch they are drinking. When people get emotionally invested in the product, they are more likely to pull it off the shelf. When people see pictures of us putting rum in the barrel, it becomes real for them. Before Facebook and Twitter, I don’t know that you could do that.

Obviously you’re selling a product, so relationships with restaurants and bars in Boston are key. Can you talk about that a little? How you made contacts with these people and how you connect with customers offline?

One of the reasons we wanted to be in Boston was so we could have bar managers, bartenders, and buyers in to the distillery to see what we were doing. We were lucky enough to be introduced to people in the industry early on who were willing to take a chance on us. Jackson Canon and Tom Schlessinger-Guidelli of Island Creek Oyster Bar, Noon Inthasuwan of Moksa, the folks at Toro, the Lee brothers over in Cambridge. They came to the distillery, saw what we were doing, and decided they were going to get behind Bully Boy. We do as much interacting with our target audience as we possibly can. We work parties, tastings at liquor stores, charity events, staff tastings at restaurants. There are very few opportunities to interface with consumers that we pass up. We also just started a series of parties where we roll out limited run offerings, and we have a big one-year anniversary party that is in the works for June.

When you’re not distilling, what are you most focused on with the business?

Sales, marketing, and account support. If no one is buying your product, there is no point in making it.

What’s next? Are you focused on improving anything? Releasing a new product? Expanding? More of the same?

We have two barrel-aged products, a rum and a whiskey, being released in December. Pre-release demand for those products has been considerable, so it should be a busy winter. Beyond that, we just started selling in Rhode Island and we hope to move into New Hampshire and possibly Connecticut in 2012, 2013. We don’t want to expand too quickly. You only have one chance to succeed in a new market.

Photo: Will(L) and Dave(R) Willis at Bully Boy. Boston, MA.  REUTERS/Handout Courtesy of Bully Boy

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So proud that this great local business is in my neighborhood – Roxbury – in Boston. Would love to see Bully Boy help make this largely empty warehouse/former light manufacturing district a home for craft distillery/microbrew/craft brewing start-ups!

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