img_1820Jason Barrett seems to have an endless supply of energy.  As the owner of a full-time distillery in Rochester, NY, he not only supervises the production and aging of the products that make up their extensive portfolio, but he also teaches a quarterly three-day intensive seminar on what it takes to get a distillery off the ground. Jason recently invited me to come experience what the classes are all about.

Starting at 9am sharp on a warm and sunny Friday morning, a group of a dozen students ranging in age from their early 20’s to well past retirement met in the tasting room for a brief overview of the weekend from Jason. As we went around the room introducing ourselves, I was surprised that there were a few people who had traveled quite the distance to be here, and others had come back to take the class a second time.  This was a good indication of the quality of the information that would be imparted.

I asked student Chelsea Washburn from Philadelphia what initially drew her to becoming involved in the spirits industry.  “The cross-cultural tradition of sharing and socializing over a drink.  No matter where you travel or the background of the people you are with, chances are you all can bond over a drink.  Secondly, the craftsmanship, from vintners, brewers, to distillers and even moonshiners. The passion and knowledge these craftspeople carry is historic, cultural, agricultural, scientific, even anthropological! In five years, I hope to have my own well-established brand in the craft spirit market based out of Philadelphia.  So, watch out for the Philadelphia Whiskey Co.”

img_1864We then were walked through the distillation room and out the back door to see the massive grain silos where local NYS corn is fed into the fermentation tanks. The first story Jason told us took place in the early days of the company. He and his fellow workers would start each day full of energy, but by the evening they were completely lethargic, headachy and short of breath.  It turns out that the massive amounts of CO2 generated by the fermenting grains in the building were causing symptoms of hypercapnia, which led to realizing the immediate need for an efficient ventilation system which was promptly installed.

img_1851Once back inside the distillery, we were shown all of the equipment Jason purchased, from the pot and column stills, fermenters, and a large selection of locally made barrels which were aging a variety of products.  On one wall, of particular note a large American flag was prominently displayed.  I later learned from Jason’s father, who also works at the distillery that this was Jason’s grandfather’s flag who had passed away a few years ago.  It is obvious that family means a lot to Jason.  As he later related, his family made their fortunes in the garment button business.  Rochester had 19 button factories at the turn of the 20th century making high quality buttons for suits.  Jason’s family business is the last left in the area.  Interestingly, Jason is colorblind and was told as a child that he would only be able to make black buttons if he took over the family business (Jason’s mother Anne is the president of the company now).  This is where the distillery’s name came from.  Everywhere you look, the Black Button logo is apparent, constantly reminding Jason of his heritage.

img_1865I was surprised at how open Jason was with the information he shared during the class.  Everything from the exact recipes he uses, to the manufacturers of his equipment, along with stories of the failures of some of his first efforts and the mistakes he’s made in terms of underestimating the space needed as the company grew.  A long question and answer period followed.  What amazed me is that Jason knows everything off the top of his head.  He had no reference book or flash cards, and there were no questions that he didn’t know the answer to, or gladly share with us.  In fact, he said several times that he is willing to follow-up with everyone long after the classes are over via email to help with any questions they may have. Chelsea Washburn appreciated this greatly.  “Having Jason so openly show and share some of his methods gives one a better grasp in how to run a well-oiled small-batch distillery.”

After a quick break for lunch, there were presentations from companies that Black Button works with including filtration specialists and an insurance agent who works with distillers.  It became clear that there is an endless list of concerns from all angles to consider.  One story that struck me was of a brewer who bought a building in the southern tier of NY, filled it with all the necessary equipment and obtained his brewing license.  It was only when he was about to begin making beer that he was told that he couldn’t do it because it was a “dry” town.  Believe it or not, there are still six locales in the state where making, buying or selling alcohol is illegal.  Another interesting story was about someone who wanted to open a distillery just up the road from Jason and approached him to get the ok to go ahead.  As they talked, Jason found out that this guy had suddenly had the idea to open a distillery just a few months prior and felt he knew everything he needed to know in order to start churning out product.  He didn’t even feel the need to write a business plan.  But, after talking with Jason, he apparently reconsidered his rash idea and decided to follow another path.

img_1873The day at the distillery ended with a launch party at Good Luck, a local restaurant who had collaborated on a new whiskey with Black Button.  As attendee Chelsea Washburn remarked, “Not only is it a beautiful dram to sip on but Good Luck astutely highlighted the label in handcrafted cocktails.  The best part is that it’s such a great way to build small business relationships in the community.” After planning, distilling and aging the product, the final yield was only 42 bottles of Black Luck whiskey.  If you want to try it, you’ll have to visit Good Luck before it’s gone.  This is truly boutique distilling.  Other limited products Black Button has crafted recently have been a Lilac Gin and a Garden Gin made in conjunction with the New York Wine and Culinary Center in Canandaigua.  They also have worked with O’Begley Distilling to co-create a whiskey.  Jason is always looking for new expressions to create, which keeps him constantly involved in the process.  All of this in only the past four years, and Jason himself is not yet 30 years old.  Pretty impressive for a young guy to hit the ground running.

As the evening wound down, I asked Chelsea what her three takeaways from the day were.  “First, you cannot make it in this industry yourself, you will need other’s advice and expertise.  Reaching out is easy to do with fellow distillers.  Everyone wants to help as it is such a new or rather refurbished industry.  Secondly, know your story to sell your brand.  As much as people will enjoy your product, they will remember and share your products’ story even more.  Knowing the story behind as to why you make your spirit the way you do or how it comes to taste the way it does or simply why it bears a name so dear to you.  People want to know the passion behind your spirit. Lastly, file your liquor federal taxes…ALWAYS!”

Black Button products are everywhere in the area, as I’ve discovered on several cocktail menus in the western New York region.  Of course having a wide range of spirits and liqueurs helps greatly.  They make everything from apple pie moonshine to bourbon cream, along with vodka, gin, whiskey and limited experimental editions.

Black Button Distilling • 85 Railroad Street, Rochester NY 14609 • cheers@blackbuttondistilling.com • 585-730-4512

A_Midnight_Modern_ConversationBack in my college days, I thought that punch equalled a 1.5l bottle of Silver Bacardi mixed together with a few cans of tropical flavored Hawaiian Punch.  After a few different occasions where this was the beverage of choice, I had enough to last me a lifetime and moved on to other less cloying things like IPA.  In fact, I hadn’t had any punch for a few decades until I read David Wondrich’s phenomenal book Imbibe! back in 2007.  I decided to make a batch of Philadelphia Fish House Punch for my first effort, and there’s been no turning back for me.  Granted, there is a bit of extra work involved than just emptying bottles into a large bowl (oleo-saccharum, anyone?), but it pays off in spades.  Not only is a real punch incredibly tasty, but you realize why punches are gaining popularity again.  These days, many of the best bars offer punch bowls on the menu, and some are even served with antique cups.

Here’s the recipe for PFHP (luckily, it doesn’t actually call for any fish).

Philadelphia Fish House Punch
(Servings: 18 – 20)
1 cup sugar
4 lemons, peeled and peels reserved
4 cups black tea (or water)
1 cup lemon juice
4 cups rum, Jamaican
2 cups cognac
1/2 cup peach brandy
Garnish: lemon wheels and freshly grated nutmeg

In a large bowl, add sugar and lemon peels, and rub together to release the citrus oils into the sugar. (This is called oleo-saccharum).
Allow oleo-saccharum to infuse for at least 30 minutes.
Dissolve sugar with warm water or tea.
Add rum, cognac, lemon juice and peach brandy and stir to mix.
Add a block of ice to chill, and continue to add smaller pieces of ice for desired dilution.
Garnish with lemon wheels and freshly grated nutmeg.
Ladle into individual glasses.

Another quite popular punch is Planter’s Punch, the recipe for which was first published as a poem in the New York Times on August 8, 1908.

Planter’s Punch
This recipe I give to thee,
Dear brother in the heat.
Take two of sour (lime let it be)
To one and a half of sweet,
Of Old Jamaica pour three strong,
And add four parts of weak.
Then mix and drink. I do no wrong —
I know whereof I speak.

Pretty easy to figure out what the measurements are, if you’re handy with a jigger.



At first glance, this looks like a mish-mash of whatever the hell you can manage to find on the backbar and in the fridge, but it actually works.  The reason is that this is simply a citrus Negroni.  The ratios are completely different, but the end result is quite balanced, tasty and elegant.  In fact, you might consider this cocktail a gateway drug to the more intense flavors of the Negroni.

Here’s what creator Gary ‘gaz’ Regan recently told me about this libation: “It’s a typical regan drink since it’s just a riff on someone else’s well-thought-out cocktail! This drink is actually a rip-off of a drink called the Old Flame, created by Dale DeGroff. gaz regan played around with Dale’s formula a little, then named the drink in honor of Dale’s wife, Jill DeGroff, a graphic artist who executes fabulous caricatures of the world’s leading cocktailian bartenders.”

I like it and will gladly drink this if proffered to me. Cheers, gaz!

The Caricature Cocktail
1.5oz gin
0.75oz triple sec
0.5oz sweet vermouth
0.5oz campari
0.5oz grapefruit juice
Garnish: orange twist

Shake with ice and strain into chilled cocktail glass. Add orange twist.

Note: Use 100% red grapefruit juice, not white.  Very important.

Qtimthumb.phpuick!  How many classic crème de menthe based cocktails can you name? Go!

That’s what I thought.  Highlight the area to the right to see if you got them all -> Grasshopper, Stinger

Crème de menthe is one of those liqueurs that once you try, you will never forget.  For obvious reasons it is used in a fair amount of obscure Irish cocktails, but personally I avoid those.

Crème de menthe is not a cream based liqueur, but rather a category of spirits known as crèmes, which are more syrupy and sugar laden than standard liquors.  It is made from Corsican mint or peppermint and is either colorless (white) or vibrantly green.  Most products today use food coloring to achieve the effect.  The flavors are exactly the same however.

If you want to try making your own at home, here’s a recipe courtesy of Marcia Simmons, co-author of DIY Cocktails which I have previously reviewed here.

DIY Creme de Menthe
1 1/2 cup fresh mint leaves (divided)
1 1/2 cups vodka
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup water

  • Measure out 1 cup of mint leaves and tear them in quarters Place mint leaves in a sealable glass jar and pour vodka on top. Shake and let steep for 12 hours.
  • After steeping is complete, strain mint leaves from infused vodka. Return infused vodka to the jar.
  • Bring the water and sugar to a boil, and let simmer 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool, then add syrup to mint-infused vodka.
  • Take the additional 1/2 cup of mint leaves, tear them, and add them to the jar. Shake and let steep for 10 hours.
  • Strain twice to remove all mint leaves, keep in resealable bottle. Keeps for two months.

cbc67e20-a700-4d2e-8b28-334324e7e417GSN’s editor Blair Frodelius recently attended the premier edition of BevCon Charleston. Designed as a showcase for all manner of potable liquids, there was a lot to take in and enjoy.  Focusing primarily on what is termed “craft” beverages, attendees had the chance to sample locally roasted coffees, teas, sodas, beer, spirits and foods, along with sessions devoted to ciders, wine, amaros and aperitifs, and industry focused discussions.  Along with the general programs, each evening allowed for tasting sessions, parties held at local bars and even a distillery event a few blocks away.  As a bonus to early attendees, there were opportunities to try one of a variety of local excursions.

All in all, it was an extremely well lubricated event, with everything going according to plan and a lot of fun for attendees.  What made it especially enjoyable, was that virtually everything was within walking distance, all seminars were in one hotel and attendance was capped.  Thus, no need to take a taxi or Uber, no crowds to wade through, and a guaranteed seat at every seminar.  As Blair said, “I look forward to my next visit and seeing my new friends in Charleston!”

For more information, go to: BevConChs

Here’s a photo recap of some of the highlights from BevCon.

Greeted by a rainbow from my hotel room at the Hyatt Place on King St.

Greeted by a rainbow from my hotel room at the Hyatt Place on King St.

The bar at Prohibition, my favorite new find!

The bar at Prohibition, my new favorite discovery!

On board the Schooner Pride in Charleston Bay for a rum excursion with Wayne Curtis.

On board the Schooner Pride in Charleston Bay for a rum excursion with Wayne Curtis.

Lunch at Pearlz Oyster Bar

Lunch at Pearlz Oyster Bar

BevCon party at High Wire Distilling

BevCon party at High Wire Distilling


The BBQ at High Wire Distilling

Opening seminar: What Is Craft?

Opening seminar: What Is Craft?

Amaro Tasting Session

Amaro Tasting Session

Endless sandwiches for lunch made by a local restaurant

Endless sandwiches for lunch made by a local restaurant

Swag from a session (stress bunny)

Swag from a session (stress bunny)

Fall/Winter Beverage Tasting Session

Fall/Winter Beverage Tasting Session

Daiquiri from Pierre Ferrand rum session

Daiquiri from Pierre Ferrand rum session

Getting silly at the wine seminar

Getting silly during the wine tasting seminar

Virgil Kaine's Ashcat Blended Bourbon release party at Proof on King St.

Virgil Kaine’s Ashcat Blended Bourbon release party cocktail at Proof on King St.

Derek Brown wows the crowd with stories about D.C. cocktails

Derek Brown wows the crowd with stories about D.C. cocktails


5399967For the third incarnation of its seasonal limited-edition syrups, Cocktail & Sons is looking deep into the past this summer. Since the late 1600s, thirsty Americans have tried to beat the summer heat by sipping switchel, a sweet-tart-spicy syrup made from vinegar, ginger and a sweetener like sugar, molasses or maple syrup. It’s a delicious and refreshing beverage, but not one that’s terribly well-known today. “Switchel was originally most popular in the Northeast,” says Cocktail & Sons founder Max Messier. “But because summers in New Orleans are probably the most brutal you’ll ever find, it was an obvious choice for our summer syrup.”

For Cocktail & Sons Switchel Syrup, Messier lets a mix of fresh-cut ginger, lemon peels and sugar sit for a week to draw out the flavorful oils, then steeps the mixture with lemon balm and orange peel, adds apple cider vinegar and sweetens with honey. And that honey is something very special: It’s produced in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward by Capstone, a non-profit that turns blighted and vacant lots in the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged neighborhood into productive gardens, orchards and apiaries. (Part of the profits from every bottle of sold will go back to Capstone as well.)

The Switchel Syrup will only be sold at wholesale for use by bars but will be available for purchase online as well at a price of $14.95 for an 8-ounce bottle. Switchel Syrup joins Cocktail & Sons’ regular, year-round line of artisanal cocktail syrups, including Haymaker’s Punch, Spiced Demerara, Oleo Saccharum, Honeysuckle & Peppercorns and Mint & Lemon Verbena.

Cocktail & Sons Switchel Syrup: Nicely balanced and with a viscous mouthfeel.  Quite sweet and lemony (as it should be), but set off with tingling heat from the ginger, a funky sourness from the vinegar cider and a touch of mellow honey.  This switchel will work with just about any cocktail you can think of that calls for a citrus simple syrup.  We recommend trying this in your next tiki or faux-tropical libation.  You won’t go wrong.  Great stuff!  GSN Rating: A

For more information go to: Cocktail and Sons

syracuse-university_syracuse_ny_usa_SKU_rocks_perspective_city_grandeHard to believe summer is almost over and students are back at school already.  For the college student who enjoys classy glassware in their dorm room, there are some new products available from UncommonGreen. Their College Town Glassware collection offers a variety of glass styles featuring intricate maps of famous college towns from all over the country. Designed with precise and stylish maps of the streets and neighborhoods of iconic American college towns, you can choose from either classic etched rocks and wine glasses or vividly screen-printed pints, which come in the school colors? There are nearly 100 iconic U.S. college towns to choose from.  The GSN offices received a pair of rocks and pint glasses featuring our local college, Syracuse University.  Everyone has been loving the detailed maps of local neighborhoods where they grab a beer or cocktail during happy hour!syracuse-university_syracuse_ny_usa_40049_staggeredSidePairRightFocus_af4ec2c0-fd85-4f43-825b-953a2803086d_grande

If you can’t find your college town in their in-stock offerings, UncommonGreen now offers every U.S. college town in their brand new Your College Town collection! Each glass is engraved-to-order, making this a truly unique gift for anyone (especially yourself!).

UncommonGreen can also send your student a reminder of home. Their Original City Map Glassware collection is the perfect way to survive homesickness. Your son or daughter will feel comforted seeing their neighborhood each time they raise their glass. You can even engrave a special message of love to go with the city of your choice.

Review: Both the rocks and pint glasses are well weighted and smooth, with beveled bases and rounded rims.  The rock glasses are etched and have a frosted appearance, while the pint glasses are enameled in Syracuse University’s school colors of orange and blue.  I prefer the colored glasses because it makes it easier to see the streets and neighborhoods, but the rocks glass also has appeal as it will show off the color of the cocktail or spirit to better effect.  Also of note is that each glass also shows the latitude and longitude of the town.  For those of you who might be interested, Syracuse is 43.0380, -76.1340.  Overall, these are well made glasses and will make great gifts for students, teachers and alumni.  GSN Rating: A

For more information go to: The Uncommon Green

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