Q&A: Dave & Will Willis of Bully Boy Distillers
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Boyhood spent on a fourth-generation family farm prepared brothers Dave and Will Willis for a life of making spirits. The two first tinkered with apple cider, then moved on to distilling apple brandy. By 2010 they had co-founded Bully Boy Distillers, with Dave serving as head distiller and Will as head of sales. The distillery name itself is a callback to family heritage—Bully Boy was a draft horse belonging to their great-grandfather, whose name was inspired by his friend Teddy Roosevelt. Today Bully Boy produces rum, whiskey, vodka, and two bottled cocktails, and operates a distillery and tasting room in Roxbury.
What inspired you to found Bully Boy?
Will: We wanted to create a secondary source of revenue for our family farm. The original business plan called for the distillery to be on the farm, but our dad was not excited about the prospect. We’re now focusing on sourcing our ingredients from there instead of actually making the liquor there.
Dave: First and foremost, we loved distilling, and the notion that we could do it professionally, and do it as brothers was too good to pass up. Every other consideration was a distant second.
What memory of growing Bully Boy stands out to you most?
Will: The earliest days when it was just Dave and I sitting on buckets at a card table as a desk excited and terrified that we were starting a business together.
Dave: There have been a lot of humbling moments, both good and bad. I still remember the feeling of walking into a bar and getting blown off in the early days, and I also remember walking into a bar and getting embraced. The ups and downs are what you remember the most.
Will, list three adjectives to describe Dave.
Enigmatic, objective, hilarious.
Dave, list three adjectives to describe Will.
Likable, funny, and honest.
What’s the dynamic between you as brothers and coworkers? Was it difficult to learn to work together?
Will: We’ve always had various businesses throughout our lives—landscaping, house painting, bandmates—but usually with our third brother involved. Working together without a tie-breaking voice was tough at first, but we’re great friends and we were able to carve out roles naturally over time.
Dave: We both thrive at different things, and because of that we naturally stay out of each other’s hair. If we had to have a meeting of the minds on every decision, I think we’d kill each other. We are as close as when we started this business seven years ago. Delegation of duties has been the key.
Do you have any favorite food pairings with any of your products?
Will: Indian food paired with our white whiskey and orange soda. Trust me.
Dave: When I drink cocktails with food I want the cocktail to be clean. Most of my cocktail drinking is done before and after dinner, but I do love an Estate Gin martini with red meat.
What’s your long-term dream for Bully Boy?
Will: To work for my kids someday.
Dave: To grow a brand with longevity—The type of brand I can one day hand off to my kids.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to someone wanting to start their own company?
Will: Do it now, stay persistent, and get humble.
Dave: Be honest with yourself. If it doesn’t work on paper, tweak the model until it does. I’ve seen a lot of companies fail, especially in the beverage space, because of unrealistic sales projections needed to justify the model.