By Richard Thomas
When people think of craft whiskey in New York, they tend to think either of the city (Kings County, Baron Nahimas, etc.) or of something more rural or Upstate (Finger Lakes, etc.). Yet in Rochester, the third-largest city in the Empire State, there is a singular outpost* in New York State’s busy craft whiskey scene, Black Button Distilling.
Black Button has taken the path of many new distilleries in beginning with unaged spirits, and their stake in craft whiskey is their moonshine/corn whiskey. It’s a start they are building on, with an apple pie version of that corn whiskey out just this week and a four-grain bourbon planned for the future. These things and more were discussed when we caught up with Jason Barrett, Black Button’s founder and currently Rochester’s sole distiller.
RT: You and Richard are the main spirits guys at Black Button, and both of you come from not-distilling backgrounds. Tell me about learning how to make whiskey.
JB: I came from a beer brewing background. I started making beer in college on the 6th floor of my dorm and kept home brewing almost every weekend for several years. I worked as an accountant and made sure to gather some clients in the brewing and distilling trades. After spending time with them in production and in the business side of things I decided to start going to classes. I went to classes all over the country, read books from all over the world, scoured the internet for articles and documentaries. I was probably spending 30 plus hours a week for the better part of three years researching this industry before I felt comfortable enough to take a jump into this world.
But the best thing I found was the hands on training. I went to schools in Chicago and Washington State, New York and Virginia. The time I spent learning from other distillers who were in the business was the biggest help to my getting started. And that’s part of the reason why we run classes today, I want to pass on the skills I have learned to new entrepreneurs who are coming up through the ranks.
My father Richard has been a mechanical and industrial engineer since college. He worked on all kinds of things for big and little companies before coming to work with me at the distillery. He is still working on his distilling skills so he leaves a lot of that work to me but he is a huge help in debugging a problem, creating processes and fixing equipment. Our skill sets are so diverse that’s its nice having both of us, since we attack problems in very different ways.
RT: On that note, one fairly consistent criticism of the craft whiskey scene is that it takes decades of experience to become a true master distiller. Seeing as how you are 27 years old, what do you think of that idea that only old men make good whiskey?
JB: I agree whole heartedly it takes decades to become a true master distiller. That’s why I call myself our head distiller instead. But just because I am not a master distiller that doesn’t mean we don’t make good whiskey. To me it means that we have to be more careful, we have to spend more time researching our procedures and adhering to them religiously. It also means we have to dump a batch if it doesn’t taste good. Basically, if you use good grain, run a good brewing and fermentation cycle, go low and slow on the still and make clean cuts the whiskey is going to be pretty good. And if it isn’t, don’t bottle it. Either rerun it or flush it and try to figure out what you did wrong. It takes a lot of time and energy for us to make good whiskey, I think its not a lack of knowledge but a lack of patience that causes substandard products to hit the market. We did our homework, we take the time and we flush what isn’t good and our consumers have responded positively to that.
RT: Black Button opened only last year, and you are the only distillery in Rochester. How has the community response been?
JB: It’s been an overwhelmingly positive response. We go to festivals and tastings and tons of people are like “hey you’re the Black Button Guy, we love local” or “I have a bottle of your stuff at home.” Our tasting room gets busier every month and our sales guys are signing up new liquor stores across NY State every week. We are also getting ready to start shipping out of state having found some great distribution partners to work with to bring our products to those areas. I never expected to have 20 employees just 9 months into the business and struggling to make enough product on our 300 gallon still. We are working on training a production distiller so we can go to two full shifts and we will double our capacity once we are ready to do that.
RT: You released an Apple Pie version of your corn whiskey/moonshine this week. Tell me about that project.
JB: Its been almost a full year since we did our first pilot batch and we [had] done several dozen more test batches since then before we ever hit the market. The hold up for us was that I wanted to use fresh pressed NY state apple cider and it took a lot of work with our apple growers to decide exactly what blend of apples was best. Proofing and blending a product with this much sugar has been a learning experience but we bought an obscuration still, went to visit another distillery to learn how to use it, and practiced on some of our test batches so we knew what we were doing.
RT: Black Button is also making gin and vodka. Of the three products you have right now — gin, vodka and corn whiskey — which is the most popular?
JB: Our citrus forward is our best seller by far. It’s so different than traditional London dry style gins that mixologists and consumers have really taken to it. Plus it’s a beautiful package and I think that helps it jump off the shelf.
RT: And which of the three is your person favorite?
JB: Well of the products we have on the market today my favorite is definitely the Citrus Forward Gin. I love it in a Gimlet or Gin and tonic but I also make good use of the test bottles of our 4 grain bourbon. And I can’t wait to share that with consumers when its ready to come to market.
* Correction: Since publication we have learned of one other distillery in Rochester, O’Begley’s.