The Good Bully
On a hidden street in the gut of industrial Boston I drove up to an unassuming warehouse where the small sign on the door humbly read Bully Boy Distillery. With an unlocked door, I walked in to the rich and frankly pungent smell of molasses. “I smell rum,” I say as both Dave and Will greet me.
About a month ago on a chilly December morning I paid a visit to Dave and Will Willis, brothers and co-owners of Bully Boy Distillery. Since Foundry on Elm and Saloon opened our doors we have had a good relationship with the brand. They are local, they price fairly, they are super nice guys and they make damn fine spirits. I went to get a better idea of distillation and spend a little time hanging out to talk booze which they both do very well.
The warehouse itself is not glamorous. There is no reception area, no pretentious person pouring samples of something they know little about. It is a true work space and these two guys work that space very well. In fact, they do everything from driving the fork lift which Will navigates like a Jedi flying through the Death Star to slapping labels on bottles. It is a total hand over fist product. This is as intensive as a farm work or welding and like those the end result is as satisfying sculpting.
They focus on 3 basic spirits: vodka, rum and whiskey. Both the vodka and white whiskey are certified organic and based with winter wheat which makes a soft and elegant spirit. The rums use black strap molasses which as I mentioned is aromatically intense. On the rum and whiskey end of things there are 2 separate styles. For rums they offer a white rum and their newer release, Boston Rum. Both of these see wood but the white rum is charcoal filtered to remove the impurities of oak. Cask is only used just to help the rum settle and soften some of the harsher edges. The Boston Rum spends a hefty amount of time in barrel and does not go through the filtration. This was how rum was made centuries ago in Boston when it was just a port of the British Crown and I’m sure this helped to spark a revolutionary ideology in what would later be the belly button of our independence. Their whiskeys are made using different types of grain. The white whiskey like the vodka uses winter wheat. How this is different then vodka is how it is distilled. The vodka distills at a higher proof to remove as many impurities as possible. The white whiskey is distilled at a slightly lower proof leaving many of the aromas present in the spirit and like the white rum it has a brief respite in oak and then it is charcoal filtered. Their American Straight Whiskey has a different mash bill all together. It is 45% corn, 45% rye and 10% malted barley. Using an equal ratio of corn to rye offers balance. The spice from the rye is not overpowering and the earthier aromas of the corn subdued. It rests in oak until they feel it is ready and for the money this is one of my favorite whiskeys.
The name Bully Boy is said to be inspired by Will and Dave’s great-grandfathers horse named after his collage roommate, Teddy Roosevelt. That’s not a bad pedigree
There are two basic forms of distillation. The 1st which is the oldest still used today is called the Alembic Still or Pot Still. Basically you have a single chamber or “pot” that your fermented liquid goes in. For Whiskey it’s in beer like form, in Brandy it is wine and in rum it is fermented molasses. As the Liquid is heated the alcohol will evaporate at 173 degrees F which is about 39 degrees cooler than water. The alcohol vapor travels up a pipe where it cools. As it cools through condensers, condensation forms. That condensed liquid is now alcohol. To get a simple understanding of how a condenser works simply blow into your hand opened mouth. It will feel hot. Then blow into your hand with a pucker. As the air compresses it cools. Typically the 1st run off of the Pot Sill is called “low wine” which is about 20% alcohol. This liquid is reintroduced into the still to make the final product which will come out at a much high degree of alcohol.
The 2nd method of distillation which is used at Bully Boy is known as a Column Still also called the Continuous Still . This is called a Column Still for a simple reason… its a column. The column has a series of plates or compartments. Like the Pot Still the mash vaporizes. As the alcohol vapor rises it will condense within each plate then it reheats and distills again to the next level. In short it is continuously distilling so the lowest levels are your “low wine” but within each level or compartment the alcohol increases. This is the how most of our beloved vodkas are made. Because Column Stills can easily distill at a higher degree of alcohol it does not leave all those congeners or impurities that can make you fill ill the next day. I suppose what gives you the headache after so many Cosmos is all that damn sugar. The Vodka or rum in this case leaves a clean, light feeling in the morning. Ah, the miracle of the Column Still and the wonders of scientific drinking.
Heads or Tails? I Prefer the Heart
As your still heats up the 1st thing to evaporate before the alcohol is methanol. This is the hangover inducing, eyesight losing stuff that created much of the roaring 20’s cocktail culture. Once your still heats up to 174 degrees the methanol will burn off and form condensation. Once this is discarded the subtle signs of ethanol begin.This is the good stuff.
The 1st truly ingestible parts off the still are called “The Heads“. These are the fruitier aromas that a spirit will have. It is also higher in proof ranging around 95% alcohol or 190 proof (degree is alcohol x’s 2). The heads are way too strong in proof and also can be overwhelming aromatically, the trick here is in the balance. You want enough of those fruity aromas to give body and structure without either overpowering your spirit or your senses. Dave only leaves traces of them in, just enough to give a voice but to bulk up production and product quantity that $6 plastic jug of vodka you find at your favorite package store will be composed almost entirely of “the Heads” which is one reason why cheap liquor is cheap. Then comes “the hearts“. This is the meat and potatoes, the mainstay, the base. Anything that came before and after is only an accent The last part are “the tails” which tends to be funkier and vegetative. Once you you create your final blend of hearts, heads and tails the excess are often reintroduced to the still with more fermented mash (the stuff you start with) hence Jack Daniels Sour Mash .
From here whiskeys and often rums are barreled. As it sits in the barrel the alcohol, being a gas naturally evaporates. This evaporation is called the Angels Share. Once you feel the spirit has reached its potential in the barrel it will typically be around 130 proof. Then it is either watered down to a lower proof (usually 90 to 80 proof) or if the spirit is complex, smooth and balanced enough at this high proof it might go straight into bottle at what is called “Barrel Strength” or “Cask Strength” and man this stuff can be great but can really pack a wollup.
With clear spirits like their vodka it will be charcoal filtered to help clean up the edges, water will be added to bring it to an approachable 80 proof and then bottled
So as I mentioned Dave and Will were making rum that day. It was pretty romantic in what I fell is the truest form of the word. Not a soft emblematic feeling of life, or a withered old Frenchman offering a taste of fine cognac that was laid down by his grandfather. It is the hard work and love that a farmer feels when he tills the land. It was literally gallons of molasses dumping into fermenters to mix with the yeast. Then smelling the intense methanol as it runs off the still until you pick up the faint elegance of what will be the heads, hearts and tails. It is time consuming, it is making mistakes and learning from them, it is understanding not just the science of the still but the intuition of the palate. It is tasting, spitting, dumping and trying again. To me it is inspiring.
Rum is one of my favorite spirits and it is not because it reminds me of tropical vacations where the flavor is taken away by orange juice, lime and coconut. Nor is it watching the bartender painstakingly muddle mint. To me it is a working mans drink. It is a drink of our lineage. It is was one of our 1st undertakings at distillation and although I get to drink fine wine and try crazy, funky brews I still sweat when I work. Maybe we need the juices and sweeteners to help us feel relaxed from all the hard work we do but I feel that rum can stand on its own and I love spirit based rum drinks.
After my visit with Will and Dave they graciously offered me a little mini barrel to age a cocktail in. I wanted something to remind me of my visit so I choose the one they were distilling, the white rum. I drew from some of the flavors that are typically paired with rum like the tropical curacao and the fortified Portuguese wine from the island of Madeira which would have been a classic seafaring drink to give some context and history with a bit of dry vermouth to add volume and texture without imparting sweetness (rum has the tendency to enhance sugars in a drink given its base). In the end I wanted to balance the natural flavor that rum can offer but in a way that is not typical but still familiar. The name White Strap is a tongue and cheek reference to the black strap molasses that is used which in the end make a potent and fine white liquor. This is currently available at Foundry on Elm for $8 a pour.
The White Strap
1 1/2 oz Bully Boy White Rum
3/4 oz Dolin dry Vermouth
1/2 oz Blandy Rainwater Madeira
1/4 oz Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao
2 dashes Bittermans Tiki Bitters
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
Age in barrel for 2 weeks
Just pour into a small rocks glass and add an orange swath.
No need to water down the flavors with ice. This should be drunk at room temperature right our of the barrel for a casks strength cocktail.