meet brandi bowles, whiskey-whisperin' co-founder of Boss Molly Bourbon
Boss Molly co-founder brandi bowles shares her entrepreneurial genius + custom Foreplay Cocktail
If you've ever had the pure creative joy of a drunk brainstorm with friends, you probably remember the bliss in creating a genius, million-dollar start-up idea.... and also the morning-after realization that there were some serious holes in your Big Start-Up Idea.
But if you're Brandi Bowles, co-founder of Boss Molly Bourbon, your drunk brainstorm over a game of poker with friends leads to a delicious new partnership, years of dream weaving and a stunningly versatile, rule-breaking bourbon that's igniting every palate it touches. Here, Bowles shares how she, Victoria Horn and Kate Rosante used their three different palates, a serious love of whiskey and an innate curiosity about their craft to create something truly unforgettable. If you're lucky enough to get your hands on a bottle of Boss Molly, sip her straight or check out the irresistibly sexy Foreplay Cocktail they created just for us.
how did you find the courage to turn a poker game bourbon fantasy into a legit bourbon brand that’s already winning awards and taking over NYC?
brandi bowles, co-founder, boss molly
So great question. I think the secret to our success has been staying curious. From the beginning, we had no idea what it would look like to start a whiskey business. We just were curious about whether it was even possible, what a bourbon led by women might look like and taste like. And we went down this crazy rabbit hole of learning as much as we could. And what happens is over time, your curiosity leads you to insights and answers and data and you become an expert. So that was a really weird shift that certainly gives you a lot of courage when you realize you know a lot more than other people about this one thing. And that curiosity is what has enabled us to stay on top of all the madness of running a business with a small team, because there's always something new to learn, whether it's on the operational side or the marketing side or the fundraising side. That innate love for learning and curiosity is what keeps us on our toes and makes this whole process enjoyable.
I love this because I feel like we often hijack ourselves by having this imposter syndrome that everybody talks about, but if you stay curious and give yourself credit for knowing more, perhaps you can combat that.
That's exactly right. And sometimes there is a benefit to what my business partner calls the wisdom of amateurs. When you don't know that things have to be done a certain way, you are freer to do it your way. So what we learned was that there were a lot of assumptions in the whiskey business, some of which are really baked in, like the rules of how you make bourbon. And we didn't want to necessarily change any of that because we love bourbon as it is. But we did find an opportunity to make it our own and do some bold things that other people weren't doing. And we weren't scared off because we haven't done this before and we didn't have a million people telling us, "No, that's not the way it's done." So absolutely, that's how modern innovation happens. It’s people taking risks and coming into it a little bit blind and saying, "Well, why had no one done it this way?"
really smart. as women and as new players in an old industry, I’m assuming there wasn’t a seat at the table for you. How did you show up and create one for yourself?
So this is interesting. There is actually a long history in the whiskey industry to hire women as master blenders and tasters. That is a pretty recent development, but in fact, women have more olfactory nerves than men. So it's long been understood that women actually have better palates. We can taste more in the whiskey. So a lot of brands had been hiring women behind the scenes. What you didn't see a lot of was women ownership, female ownership, or women really taking the helm on the distilling side. We are starting to see that more and more, and there's a lot of nerves around making products that feel overly feminine. Just again, there's a fear in the space that if you lean to female, you might alienate the majority of the audience, which is still slightly men.
But I would say that it was less of an obstacle than you might think, being a woman in the industry. For the most part, people seem very open to it. It's only in the branding side where they are typically very uneasy. They're a little bit uneasy because it's just not how it's always been done. And that aspect of it has been interesting of walking around and telling people that we're really leaning into the fact that we're a woman-owned brand and we're not hiding it or shying away from it or keeping it neutral. We see that as one of our greatest assets.
so interesting, I didn’t know there was a male/female difference in the olfactory nerves.
Yeah. Isn't that pretty cool? And that's true across all food and drink. I mean, at the end of the day, everybody tastes things a little bit differently, like it's so subjective. But typically, if you have a woman who is interested enough to open herself up to the world of bourbon and whiskey, she will pull out many more flavor notes than a guy possibly can. We have a slight advantage in that department.
you and your co-founders are connoisseurs of bourbon — how did you go about creating something that’s different, something with a female lens and something that wasn’t "a pink version of men's bourbon"?
Yeah, so when we created Boss Molly, we weren't particularly thinking about men's taste versus women's taste, but we did have a dichotomy in mind. It was how to please both the bourbon nerds and aficionados and folks who were new to it. Because we really think that the fact that bourbon has been so heavily masculinized for so long, it actually keeps a lot of people out. So we want to invite more women into this conversation and to make sure that we are creating a bourbon that will be pleasing to them, but also offer something really special for the connoisseurs. And I think the way we were able to do that... I have two partners and all of us come to this business from a different place and a different palate. So I've been a bourbon drinker almost since I was legally allowed to drink, maybe a little before.
I have a palate that's a little bit on the sweeter side, but one of my partners, Victoria, came to bourbon from scotch. She was a scotch lover and liked that smoky taste and that heat. And then our third partner, Kate, came to this world from cocktails. So she was used to those sort of bitter flavors that come in a well-made balanced cocktail, and she really wanted a product that would stand up in a cocktail and stand out as well. So she and Victoria and I decided that the winning mash bill would be the one that made us all really excited. If it pleased all of our palates, which are all so different, that would be more of a crowd pleaser for our future market as well. It was very personal, but I would say it's a female lens by nature of us being female, but it isn't specifically targeted to men or women in terms of taste.
i love that you hit all three different angles.
Yeah, it really helped because who knows? I mean, if Victoria had been solo on this journey, she may have picked something that was a little more smoky or more peaty. I may have picked something that was sweeter and would be too sweet for the high-proof bourbon crowd. I think having all of us, it was sort of a system of checks and balances almost, where we knew that, maybe it's bold to say, but I think there is a sweet spot where you can make a whiskey that is special. It's unique, but it's not so polarizing that you're going to drive away half your audience. And so that was very much our goal.
you’ve mentioned that curiosity and creativity were key tools in your collective toolbox — how do you keep those skills honed and alive — when running a business can be so stressful and time-consuming?
I think this one also goes back to curiosity and being willing to just have a continual learning process. Because no matter how much you try to prepare and understand every aspect of this business, it's going to throw you curveballs. That's just the fact.
And if you're not willing to keep digging and doing the research and learning more and more, then you're going to get stuck, because, again, nobody comes to entrepreneurship as an expert. There is going to be some aspect of it that's new, because when you're starting out, you're wearing all the hats. So yes, of course, some days we all feel overwhelmed and there's just a lot to manage in terms of the financial side and the production side and the sales side and the marketing side. But I always have to remind myself, we're not making widgets here, we're making whiskey, and that's pretty awesome. We have to remind ourselves that this is a real opportunity for us to bring more representation to the shelf, which desperately needs it. So there's a little bit of a mission-driven sense there as well, but it's always just any challenge that faces us, we have confidence we'll be able to solve it as a team and through talking to the right people. And if we don't know something, figuring out how we get those answers.
"When I really believe in something, I mean, I think that you'll hear this from any entrepreneur, but you have to hold that belief and confidence and passion very closely to power through any obstacle in your way."
being an entrepreneur is quite different than sitting back, enjoying the whiskey that you're making. It's almost opposite ends of the spectrum.
I do have to remind myself to take stock now and again and just be present. And if I did some great events this week, to really try to enjoy them. I'm not just there selling a product. I made this, I'm proud of it. It's whiskey. It's made for celebrating. So we just did a great cocktail class... a restaurant brought in a mixologist to teach a couple of cocktails, and everybody was using shakers and making their own. It was a delight. And honestly, I made a bunch of new friends. I just sat down and hung with all of the bourbon fans, some of whom were new to our products, some of whom had already tried it. And it was like, this is my community. It was really fun and felt like I was the host of a party rather than doing a work event where I had to be on.
there’s something inherently sexy about whiskey — how can someone new to bourbon begin cultivating their palate?
Yeah, I actually love this question because this is something that when I started out, I drank a lot of bourbon. I had my favorites. I had tried a lot of brands. But I hadn't been as mindful about cultivating my palate at that juncture in my life. And when we decided to start development, it became my mission. So I started tasting everything, going to distilleries, doing the tours, tasting moonshine, tasting finished whiskey, tasting it at different ages, and also tasting all the different brands out there.
And something phenomenal happened, which was I started smelling and tasting everything differently. Not just whiskey, like coffee suddenly had layers of aromatic. I could be walking down the street and I could smell when someone across the street was using manure or had recently cut their grass. Grass had layers of smell to it. And there was just this very funny side effect of my whole life became more sensual. And I really think it was because I was waking up those senses, taste and smell, where I was thinking so hard about what I was tasting and smelling that I just started doing it on autopilot. And that was very cool.
So the first thing I'll say is developing a palate is about more than just being good at tasting whiskey. It's really something you can do for your whole life. But it's about tasting everything and being thoughtful about what is the actual experience you're having? What is the nose? What are the layers that you're smelling? Then what is the taste on the tongue, and does that taste change after a few sips when your palate is warmed up? And then what are you getting on the finish? And even writing it down, that can be helpful. There's never any wrong answers, but it's just the very process of giving it that mindful thought will have benefits across all of your life.
I love the idea of waking up all of your senses.
I'm telling you, it was like I'd taken drugs. It's just things, they tasted different after I started spending so much time thinking about whiskey. And that has continued to today. So I tell people, and it probably doesn't have to be whiskey, it can be wine. If you really want to go down a rabbit hole of any kind of food or drink or chocolate and you wake up your brain to all those different flavors and sensations, then your brain will stay awake, and that is pretty cool.
I know you sweated every last detail when it comes to Boss Molly — what is the best way to experience her and what can we expect from a sensory POV?
Yeah, I mean, we never shame those that want to start with a cocktail. Boss Molly holds it great in an old fashioned, and really announces the almond and spice notes in a mixed drink. But if you are on the palate-development journey, or if you are a more experienced bourbon drinker, I do recommend trying it straight, or maybe with a very small piece of ice, and that way you're going to get the whole flavor without any dilution. What you'll find is we have an incredible aroma that everybody loves. It's got a really warm butterscotch quality, with a little almond and vanilla and maybe a little floral honeysuckle note, too. And then when you take that first sip, you'll get the heat, and that's where you're going to get a little leather and cinnamon, maybe some cocoa. And a lot of people get a touch of citrus on the palate as well.
And we get the most love for our finish. It's really a showstopper. It sort of unfolds in a bunch of different layers, starting with the sweet from brown sugar and almond and brandy to a baking spice and a buttery toffee. So that finish is wild. It will just keep changing flavor in your mouth for a solid 40 seconds. It's pretty cool. And that's one reason that bourbon is so sexy, because it's not Diet Coke. It really is a drinking experience, and it will linger on your tongue with all that sweet, sort of buttery heat. So yes, it's quite a taste experience.
you talked a little bit about how you guys infused your palates into the brand and into the flavor profile, but I'm wondering how you also infused some of your passions and personalities into Boss Molly.
So Boss Molly itself, the name is an old farming term that means a stubborn female mule, and that is something we really resonated with. The bourbon itself is pretty ballsy and experimental. We've got a brandy stave finish, and we did it a little differently than you typically see. So what's common in the bourbon world are cask finishes, and that's where once the bourbon has aged in its new oak barrel, then it's dumped into a cask that has been used to age something else, maybe port or sherry or wine. And so that's one way, in fact, the only legal way of bringing a slight twist in flavor to a bourbon. But what we do is different.
We take brandy barrels and we break them down into pieces that are called staves, and then we toast the staves. So we get a 360-degree toast on every side. And that's very important. That brings a lot of vanillin and savory chemicals to the surface of the wood, natural chemicals that when you put them in the whiskey, have a huge impact on the flavor. So once again, this was the wisdom of amateurs. No one told us we couldn't do this. It is 100% a similar process to cask finishing, but our own variation. So that was very much us trying to do something new, and it turned out terrific. The flavor is pretty standout for what else is on the shelf. But yeah, everything's in the packaging, which is both elegant and has a little bit of humor snuck in there, even the shape of the bottle, which we chose because we thought it would be good in a bar fight, even though none of us have ever been in a bar fight. It all has our DNA all over it.
given it has such a unique taste experience and profile, what are some off-radar ways we can play with it in cocktails or recipes?
I made Boss Molly brown butter pecan cookies this winter, and they were pretty amazing. I am not going to pretend like I'm a very in-depth baker, however, and typically if I'm baking, I'm not using the good bourbon. You know what I mean? Yeah. But we do love cocktails. It really does stand out in a cocktail and makes it something special. One of my favorites, which a lot of people are unfamiliar with, is the Boulevardier, which is essentially just a bourbon negroni. And the best thing about it, it's pretty easy to remember. It's just 1 ounce bourbon, 1 ounce vermouth and 1 ounce campari, and it's not a super sweet drink, but it's got a beautiful red color and is very impressive, and people really enjoy that one. And I'm a huge fan of the gold rush, which is like an elevated whiskey sour. So these are drinks that if you love cocktails or you're new to bourbon are a fun way to start, and you'll get the flavors of the whiskey there in the drink, but they're a little slightly lower ABV and something you can really enjoy with a crowd.
we consider the act of creating and savoring a cocktail as foreplay of sorts whether you’re seducing yourself or a lover… what would be the perfect Boss Molly Foreplay Cocktail?
I actually had a very long discussion with my partners about this to be like, what's the sexiest Boss Molly drink we can think of? What we decided on is a Manhattan variation. Boss Molly Foreplay Cocktail will be 2 ounces of Boss Molly bourbon, 1 ounce of sweet vermouth, and 2 dashes of chocolate bitters. And if you really want to take it to the next level, you can put a little honey on a plate and a little cocoa next to it, and you can rim your glass first in a little honey and then dip it in the cocoa, and have just a little chocolate there at the tip of your tongue when you take a drink. And that is our foreplay cocktail. That will get your night started right.
last Q, what have you learned about yourself when it comes to taking risks, follow your curiosity and letting passion override fear?
I have learned that I am even more of a stubborn female mule than I thought. When I really believe in something, I mean, I think that you'll hear this from any entrepreneur, but you have to hold that belief and confidence and passion very closely to power through any obstacle in your way. Because there will be the 10 no’s that you have to hear to get one yes. And I have been very proud of how I have been able to push through any resistance or rejection or try a new path when those situations occur, just out of sheer will power. And again, it really will test you. There are days where it's like we've bitten off a lot, there's a lot to do, and we're still a new brand, so we're competing with some big names out there, but we're just trying to be creative and we're trying to be persistent, and ultimately it's been paying really big dividends. So that's the goal, henceforth.
I say all the time that perfect is the enemy of done. We're just sitting there sweating the details over an Instagram post, we're never going to get anything done. So it's very much like life is not perfect, but we are putting as many balls in the air as we can, and trying to make great decisions and just keep moving forward. And then it's funny because sometimes it doesn't feel like there's momentum, and I'm sure you have this too, but then you look behind you and you're like, "Oh, we've actually come pretty far."