June 12, 2018

Millennials kickstart sales of W. Hartford's Bellis Bourbon

PHOTO | Bellis Bourbon
PHOTO | Bellis Bourbon
Bellis Bourbon began selling their booze to over 60 stores and restaurants between Stamford and Manchester on Monday.
PHOTO | Bellis Bourbon
Bellis Bourbon is distilled twice before it hits shelves in Connecticut.

Longtime friends Mike Bellis and Colin Santacroce are out to prove that family and business do mix.

The friends of 14 years on Monday began selling their American whiskey as owners of West Hartford's Bellis Bourbon. They are shipping their booze to 60-plus stores and restaurants between Stamford and Manchester, including five establishments in West Hartford.

Bellis, 28, and Santacroce, 29, say more bottles will soon hit shelves as the owners continue inking deals with more liquor distributors across Connecticut.

Bellis Bourbon's ascent is a family effort, the owners said. The partners are getting legal and web development advice from Mike's father and brother (Steve and Matt) and social media and marketing support from his soon-to-be brother-in-law, Matt Paolini.

Santacroce, a U.S. Army veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan, said Monday's launch was the culmination of a year's worth of hustling through a seven-day work week.

"We are selling Bourbon that is aged off of a friendship that involves close family," the Westport resident said. "We share a mutual love for bourbon and knew we had a chance to do something to introduce it to as many people as possible."

The fledgling company currently handles business operations at Bellis's home in West Hartford, with its product distributed from a major warehouse in Southbury. Its bourbon, meantime, is produced and initially distilled in Indiana.

Bellis Bourbon, the owners say, offers a smoother finish compared to other barrel-aged whiskeys because it is distilled for a second time in California before it is bottled in Missouri and shipped to Connecticut.

The cross-country exchange, known as product sourcing, is a common technique for entrepreneurs to break into the liquor industry, the owners said, reflecting on their commitments to long-term whiskey sales.

Shared passions

The friends forged a close bond through sports during their freshman year at Hopkins School in New Haven before Bellis became an actuary for a Fortune 500 company in downtown Hartford and Santacroce served two combat tours in Afghanistan.

Santacroce, a bartender nearing a December graduation from Syracuse University's ROTC program, noticed that bourbon lovers reach for brands with appealing bottles, logos and overall packaging, especially when buying gifts.

Santacroce pitched the idea of starting a bourbon company to Bellis in July 2017, when the friends devised a plan to begin selling their own bourbon, the nation's fastest-growing brown liquor market, within the next year.

The friends are now awaiting patent approval on their barrelled bottle combination, which features a rustic barn and abutting silo canvassed with an American flag, an ode to U.S. military veterans.

Looking for business in March, the owners identified 550 liquor stores across the state before beginning advanced sales on May 21. This week, Bellis Bourbon began selling to more than 60 stores and restaurants, including pending sales at eateries in downtown Hartford.

Santacroce, the company's head of sales and marketing, said the process has left him feeling nostalgic about his home state.

"It has been one of the best times of my life going through Connecticut, our home state, and meeting really great people who want to talk about the product," he said.

And with more sales, others will prosper.

Bellis Bourbon will help plant a tree with Vermont-based nonprofit One Tree Planted for every case of whiskey sold. Land conservation is crucial to the owners, who kept lettering off their packaging to encourage repurposing.

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