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Cool Shit alert

Cassandra Landry | 10.15.2014 | Issue #2

 

The story of Bully Boy Distillers’ historical beginnings has always been a popular yarn for fans of the two tallest, friendliest brothers and their award-winning whiskeys, vodka, and rum. When Will and Dave Willis stumbled upon a vault stocked with Prohibition-era spirits on their fourth-generation family farm a few years back, it kicked off a determined production of small-batch, quality hootch that has brightened the backbars of New England for the better. 

As of this month, there’s a new girl at the dance. It’s called Hub Punch, and it’s a revival of a liquor made seriously popular by the drinkers and carousers of the late 19th century.

 A clipping from  Puck , vol. 7, 1880. 

A clipping from Puck, vol. 7, 1880. 

After the subject of the original Hub Punch—a product of Boston’s C.H. Graves & Sons—was brought to their attention a year ago by bartender friends Fred Yarm and Stephen Shellenberger (of Cambridge’s Russell House Tavern and Brookline’s Pomodoro, respectively), the two set their teeth and started digging. We're talking full Nic Cage in National Treasure digging. With less guns and Sean Bean, but you know, history! It didn’t look promising at the outset; most of what remains of the wholesaler and their punch are empty bottles floating around on eBay.

“One of the strange things about Hub Punch is that at a certain point in time, not surprisingly right around Prohibition, the historical record evaporates,” Dave Willis says. “Before Prohibition, there are advertisements for Hub Punch as far flung as Washington state. C.H. Graves was really pushing the product, and then it just disappears. So every nugget mentioning Hub Punch or C.H. Graves was gold.”

A major discovery in their research centered not around a recipe, but rather the origin of the name.

“I'd assumed the 'Hub' in Hub Punch was a reference to Boston,” he explains, “but the drink actually originated in a debaucherous outpost in upstate New York.”

  The Hub House. © Thousand Islands Museum Collection, Clayton, NY.

The Hub House. © Thousand Islands Museum Collection, Clayton, NY.

That outpost was the old Hub House, a hotel in Thousand Island Park.  From 1877 until 1883, business was booming. The bar here was particularly popular, since the surrounding areas were dry at the time, but in December of 1883, a defective chimney sparked a blaze that took down the entire building in minutes. The party was finally over, but twenty some-odd years later, Hub House nightlife was remembered in this 1902 article from The Ogdensburg Daily:

Midway between Thousand Island Park and Grenell Island, it [Hub House] was a convenient place for dancing parties and many are the stories told of days and nights of hilarity at the famous hostelry. The young people of Thousand Island Park, who enjoyed dancing, which was at that time strictly tabooed by the management of the association, would frequently join the many parties at this place as well as others from surrounding islands, and trip the “light” till the light of the morning.” Trip the light, indeed, young hooligans.

Putting aside the sheer phenomenal nature of this next sentence—“Many will also recall the popularity of the famous “Hub Punch” dispensed there, as well as other concoctions which a sleek “mixerologist” was constantly springing to tickle the palate of his customers”—the article goes on to note that though the name "Hub Punch" became famous after Graves adopted it, Bart Keether, an Oswego bartender, was originally responsible for the smash hit. As for the commercial brand, “it was never equal to the original,” the article assures. Maybe a mixerologist can hook you up with some turn of the century artisanal ice for that burn, Chester Hatch Graves.  

 An excerpt from "Boston of To-Day: A Glance at its History and Characteristics. With Biographical Sketches and Portraits of Many of Its Professional and Business Men," by Edwin Monroe Bacon, circa 1892.

An excerpt from "Boston of To-Day: A Glance at its History and Characteristics. With Biographical Sketches and Portraits of Many of Its Professional and Business Men," by Edwin Monroe Bacon, circa 1892.

And that's where the Hub Punch story dries up. Now, 100 years down the line, it’s the Willis brothers’ turn to take a crack at it. Question is, how? 

“We were essentially working backwards. Since there was no record of the original recipe, we consulted historical accounts of Hub Punch, old advertisements, and the original bottle label to decipher what it could have tasted like, partly based on what people were drinking with it,” Willis explains. “On the original bottle, it called to be enjoyed with lemonade, iced tea or soda water, and a vintage advertisement noted that it had a fruit component.”

To make the modern-day Hub Punch, Bully Boy’s Boston Rum is steeped with orange peel, lemon peel and raspberry, then infused with a secret assortment of botanicals and herbs. Yes, it’s a secret. You don’t think that sly bastard Bart Keether would blab his formula either, do you?

 An ad for C.H. Graves & Sons Hub Punch appears in a clipping from the Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 3, Number 68,  11 May 1881.

An ad for C.H. Graves & Sons Hub Punch appears in a clipping from the Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 3, Number 68,  11 May 1881.

“Hub Punch” was always intended to be low-maintenance. Easy to mix, easy to drink, a boozy vacation tipple meant to loosen tongues and keep the good times rollin’. A great punch is all soft edges and gloriously tricky sweetness, and Bully Boy’s latest incarnation is no different.

“Simplicity never goes out of style. People dug punches because they were easy. People still dig punches because they are easy,” Willis says. “I love crafting difficult cocktails, but deep down inside there is still part of me that thinks Jack and Coke is actually pretty tasty.”

 

For those of you currently living it up in Boston, Bully Boy will be throwing a bit of a shindig—maybe not quite so raucous as a Hub House party, but still hoppin'—to celebrate the release of Hub Punch on Wednesday, Oct 22. It's at your favorite bar, The Hawthorne, so you should probably go. Buy your tickets here.