Who else has started a business over bottles of bourbon and a girls’ poker night? Brandi Bowles, Kate Rosante and Victoria Horn, founders of Boss Molly Bourbon hatched the idea of a bourbon brand that celebrated women without alienating men set their sights on their own spirit that night. Since then, they’ve created a delicious brandy-finished bourbon and navigated finding a distiller to work with, business and spirits paperwork and regulations, getting their product distributed, building the business and getting the bourbon to consumers. You can read about their journey below, but the part we want to know? Which one of them won poker night!
BW: When and how did you discover you wanted to work in the bourbon industry?
BM: The idea first took root at a girl’s poker trip… we were playing a travel game and had brought a lot of bourbons to taste — as were wont to do! – and realized that all the bourbon we brought carried the name or image of an old dead guy. it was funny, at first, but it was also eye-opening. The story of whiskey and bourbon has historically been so male, for so long, and women haven’t been a part of the conversation until recently. And here we were, a group of strong and ambitious women who LOVED bourbon, and not a single bottle represented us. This was the beginning of an idea we just couldn’t let go of and a commitment to curating a bourbon that celebrated women without alienating men, and that felt equally masterful and badass (and in no way “pinkified”). We knew the juice had to be amazing, too, as we would be held to a very high standard. And I’m happy to say that we accomplished that and then some!
BW: How did you end up working in the industry?
BW: As above, we started with a great deal of passion and the spark of an idea. I’m from Kentucky and have some family members who are in adjacent industries, and we all have very discerning palates, but none of us had started a company or made whiskey before! But this idea was so sticky, and we were passionate enough to spend a lot of time learning before we dove in. It took a tremendous amount of research and travel, talking to distillers and distilleries, going to trade shows, and doing the groundwork to figure out exactly what we wanted to make and how. The learning curve and financial obstacles to starting a distillery were very high, so we decided to work with contracts and find a mash bill that felt special and then make it our own. Deciding on a wheat bourbon, and a brandy finish, was the first part of that process. So in short, we had a super motivating mission and idea, we obsessively tasted and researched over several years, and then we threw ourselves into the bourbon world without looking back. It’s been a wild journey!
BW: What was your previous background – and how do you use your background in your role today? How did you background prepare you for your position in the industry today?
BM: Victoria and I have a background in book publishing, and Kate worked in advertising and marketing. We all bring wildly different skill sets to the table, from storytelling to data management to branding to networking .. those are all useful business skills, for sure. But the most important tools in our collective toolbox, by far, are our curiosity and creativity. There is so much to do and learn when you’re running a business, and endless decisions to make. Making whiskey involves many variables; it often feels like more art than science. You must be open to experimentation and risk (like when we staved our barrels for the first time… it was scary but exhilarating!). There are boring parts too, like the regulatory hurdles that come with selling alcohol, the licensing in each state, and taxes…if you lose sight of your mission, you can feel overwhelmed, fast.
You have to stay excited! Our creative passion helped us push through the hard stuff and the hurdles, and courageously commit real time and money to this because we were eager to keep growing, learning, and innovating. And we were determined to make a product women everyone would be proud of. Finally, we all had experience working in teams, and you definitely need that when you’re co-running a business!
BW: What was something surprising you learned in your early days at your current company? (or at your early days at your first whiskey position)
BM: The staving process was wild. We were all gaga for brandy finishes…they are pretty rare for the category, but every single one we’d tasted was remarkable, complex, and frankly, delicious, so that’s where we wanted to start. Turns out, it’s hard! Sourcing brandy barrels, when we hadn’t even released our first product and didn’t know many people in the industry, was challenging, but we used every connection and eventually got our hands on our first two freshly dumped barrels. Then it was ON. First of all, those brandy barrels smelled amazing. When we popped the hoops off we were surrounded by a powerful and damn near heavenly scent…it saturated the air and lingered for days (I swear you can still catch a whiff on the nose of Boss Molly!). The staves had a deep soak line, meaning the brandy had been interacting with that barrel for years, but we still weren’t sure how the flavors might come through once we added it to our bourbon barrel. Or how long it would take. Turns out? Shorter than you would think! We did a ton of research beforehand, of course, toasting the staves for a very specific time and temperature, determining our formula then praying it would be additive and complement our mashbill the way was hoped. And at the end of the day, it came out even better than we hoped. The toasting really helped bring those vanillin and caramel flavors to the surface of the wood.
BW: What does your day-to-day life look like?
BM: A lot of the work, right now, is in constantly pitching to bring on new retailers and bar/restaurant partners. We are about to launch with a big distributor in KY, and that will help, but there’s no replacement for getting out there, boots on the ground in New York and NJ where we launched, and finding partners who are excited to promote a craft brand, put it on their back bar or their cocktail menu. We are also always talking about social media, influencer marketing, and funding, funding, funding (especially for our next round of distillate). We are small but mighty, and we do everything as a team.
BW: What similarities and differences are there between your former career/position and this one?
BM:Like all jobs, this is a people business. You have to find the right people that want to support you, promote you, collaborate with you, stock your product, and be a part of your story. We are always networking, which is key to any job, but especially this one. There is a lot of competition on the market and whiskey does not sell itself. As for differences, where do we start? Everything!
BW: What does your name mean?
BM: Boss Molly is an old ranching term that means a stubborn female mule. She’s the pack leader, maybe a little but bossy, but she gets the job done.
BW: What’s the future role or vision you’d like to see the industry move towards? What are the biggest roadblocks and how can we overcome them to get there?
BM: We would love to see the industry continue to be more welcoming to women, and to acknowledge that not everyone wants to drink 125-proof liquor, drink it straight, or only value the heritage brands. There are a lot of smart women making whiskey out there! And a lot of smart men, too, with start-ups and craft brands that build up previous traditions in interesting ways. I’d love to see more respect across the industry for that kind of experimentation.
BW: What’s one thing you wish people understood better about your role or the initiatives you’re working on?
BM: Mostly, I hope people understand how much craft goes into our barrels. There’s still a knee-jerk reaction, from some consumers and retailers, about brands that use contract partners rather than own a distillery. There is so much creativity and innovation in the bourbon space, whether you operate the still or not. For my partners and I, we have huge regard and respect for our distilling partner; it’s a symbiotic relationship, and are grateful that he’s collaborative, communicative, and talented at what he does (shout out, Old Glory Distilling!). He makes our signature mash bill, custom, and communicates all through the process. We work out sticky situations and questions together. Luckily he is a whiskey fanatic who really knows his stuff and adds his own creativity to the process. The distillation happens hand in hand.
But from there, those barrels are ours, and what happens to them, when we pull them, how we stave them, how we proof them (before and after going into the barrel)…every decision is essential to making Boss Molly, Boss Molly. If we insist every whiskey of value must come from a dedicated brand-owned distillery, we’re going to see a lot of smart, creative, passionate, and dedicated whiskey lovers, with a commitment to the community, getting pushed out! Just because they didn’t have $10M to open a distillery. Small brands that use partners to get started can be just as exciting as the big guys, even without the same marketing budgets…we just hope the whiskey community will keep wanting to try new things.
BW: What’s something in your role and/or company that inspires you or gets you going in the morning?
BW: One hundred percent, it’s encouraging people to try Boss Molly, because we get wonderful reactions whether they are in the bourbon-curious stage or fully obsessed with whiskey. It’s so fun to see the reactions…our bourbon has all the traditional notes of a wheated whiskey but is still wildly unique. I’d say the reaction we get most often is delight and surprise, especially at the long, richly layered finish. It’s mostly fun to taste bourbon bros who don’t expect a 4-year whiskey or non-heritage brand to taste so good. We are underestimated a great deal and feel energized every time we get that “wow” reaction.
What advice do you have for women who want to step into a similar role or carve a similar path?
Expect surprises along the way. We encountered many obstacles in our journey and everything took longer than we thought it would..but ultimately it was worth it. You have to hustle! Creating the product is only the start, marketing it and sharing it, while fun, is a lot of work. There are good days and bad, but on the hard days, nothing beats being able to go to a bar and order a glass of the whiskey you helped create…and to see others enjoying it as well. It never gets old.
BW: Tell me about your perfect whiskey weekend in your state/city:
BM: A NYC whiskey weekend, for me, is all about great food and amazing cocktails. We don’t have many distilleries, but there are amazing bartenders here and great whiskey to be found as well. I’d take in a Broadway show or a stroll through Central Park, have an amazing meal (maybe Keen’s Steakhouse for their great bourbon selection, or the gorgeous GG Tokyo to try some Japanese Whiskeys), and then cap the night off at one (or three) of our spectacular cocktail bars, like Milady’s, Clover Club, Raine’s Law Room, Pebble Bar, Death & Co…the list goes on and on. Our bartenders are some of the best in the world.
Follow them on Instagram @bossmollybourbon