Meet Boston’s craft distilling pioneers

The entrepreneurs behind Boston's whiskey distilleries have a wide range of experiences and backgrounds
The entrepreneurs behind Boston's whiskey distilleries have a wide range of experiences and backgrounds –Courtesy of Bully Boy Distillers

What does it take to start a whiskey distillery in Boston?

Apparently it takes a law degree, a chemistry background, or an MBA.

Boston is now home to three whiskey distilleries – one in Roxbury, one in South Boston, and one on the Boston waterfront.

But the founders of Bully Boy, Boston Harbor Distillery, and Grand Ten Distilling hardly took a straightforward path to launching their companies. Here’s how Boston’s whiskey wizards got their distilling careers started.

Bully Boy Distillers

Will (left in plaid) and Dave Willis left the real estate industry to open their own craft whiskey distilling company. —Courtesy of Bully Boy Distillers

Before they started Bully Boy Distillers in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, brothers William and Dave Willis had ordinary jobs.

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Dave received his law degree from Suffolk University Law School in 2004 with the intention of pursuing a career in commercial real estate. He would end up owning and operating an assisted living home in South Carolina.

Meanwhile, Will spent several years working for a mutual fund company before pursuing a career in real estate finance.

After about a year of practicing law and owning an assisted living facility, Dave said he realized this wasn’t the career he wanted.

“When I was a lawyer it was pretty tedious and unfulfilling,’’ Dave told Boston.com. “I realized very quickly that I had made a mistake.’’

For Will, the 2008 recession took a major toll on the real estate industry and he began to think he needed a new career.

“There was not a lot of real estate going on,’’ said Will. “I was bored and felt that I was old enough but young enough that if it failed I could get back to what I’m doing.’’

The Willis brothers grew up in Sherborn on a farm with about 100 apple trees. Eventually, Dave explained, “adolescent curiosity kicked in’’ and the pair began experimenting with hard cider while in their teens.

As both their careers stalled, they recalled their time on their family farm and began to think seriously about a career in the sprits trade.

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Since opening Bully Boy Distillers in 2010, they’ve realized they are more suited to running their own company than answering to a boss.

“Our [personal] constitutions are not geared to working for someone else, taking orders from someone else, and a corporate structure built for someone else,’’ said Dave. “Some can get used to it, but we were bad at it.’’

While he’s happier now running his own company, Will Willis said he needed to experience the traditional workforce first before making the leap and starting his own company. Although it’s rewarding, he says it’s still hard work.

“The perception of distilling and brewing is it’s a big party,’’ said Will. “People assume we spend our nights and days having fun. But at the end of the day, it’s a small business and if you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s not going to survive.’’

Grand Ten Distilling

Cousins Spencer McMinn (left) and Matt Nuernberger combined their knowledge of science and business to create Grand Ten Distilling. —Tony Germann

Cousins Spencer McMinn and Matt Nuernberger, operators of Grand Ten Distilling in South Boston, did not always have careers in the whiskey business.

“I worked as an applications engineer for PC Data…before that I was a mechanical engineer for a variety of companies,’’ Nuernberger told Boston.com.

Nuernberger later enrolled in Babson College’s MBA program with the original plan to start an Internet-based company with a group of friends. Halfway through the program, he realized he didn’t have a strong idea for a company when he graduated.

That’s when he came up with the idea of crafting whiskey.

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“Craft distilling was very new,’’ he said. “I spent the summer researching the industry and the second half of my MBA with a focus on launching Grand Ten Distilling when I graduated.’’

Nuernberger realized he needed a partner for the venture, so he reached out to his cousin, spencer McMinn. McMinn has a PhD in chemistry and an extensive background in the sciences.

In 2010, McMinn was living in Paris but was preparing to return the U.S. to looking for work. When Nuernberger approached him about starting a distillery, McMinn was nervous at first, but eventually decided to take that chance.

“Getting back into research was more challenging, looking for things to apply to and there were very few opportunities,’’ said McMinn. “I started stewing and thinking about it and it became more exciting to me than staying in the lab.’’

As a business owner, McMinn’s salary is not as high as what he could have had with his chemistry training. But it doesn’t bother him – he feels that he has accomplished something tangible at the end of the day.

“It feels more rewarding than my time in the lab,’’ McMinn said. “To me, it’s worth it to be happy every day than to just have a bunch of money and not be happy.’’

Boston Harbor Distillery

Spirits entrepreneur Rhonda Kallman says her new company Boston Harbor Distillery is “like coming home.” —Courtesy of Boston Harbor Distillery

Rhonda Kallman is the latest entrepreneur to join the ranks of Boston’s distillery scene. But she’s no newcomer – with 35 years in the alcoholic beverage industry under her belt she is very much in her comfort zone as the founder of Boston Harbor Distillery.

Her early foray into the alcoholic beverage industry began as many similar careers did, as a waitress and a bartender. She also pursued a career as an executive assistant and even got an associates degree in secretarial sciences in 1980, which she said has been a significant help to her career as a spirits entrepreneur.

“I’m thankful I did that because it helped me learn all this technology, taught me about being organized, being able to communicate, watch my spelling and my grammar,’’ she said. “It’s helped me through my entire career.’’

Kallman then cofounded the Boston Beer Company in 1984 where she helped Jim Koch launch the Sam Adams brand.

Naturally, she still feels right at home with whiskey.

“For me, it seemed like a natural transition as whiskey starts as beer,’’ she said. She’s referring to the fact that beer and whiskey share many of the same ingredients in their early stages of production but require different methods to produce very different beverages.

Kallman said her latest venture into whiskey distilling is “like coming home.’’

“I spent 30 years in the beer business and I’ve come full circle now,’’ she said. “I just love it. It’s been a part of my life for so long. It’s an adventure and a lifestyle.’’

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September 25, 2017 | 8:42 AM