Jason 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.”
We 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.
Once 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.
I 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.
The 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 • firstname.lastname@example.org • 585-730-4512