SPOTLIGHT ON BUSINESS MAGAZINE
SPOTLIGHT ON BUSINESS MAGAZINE • OCTOBER 2017
He had a lot of material to work with when he set about naming his business back in 2012. He was about to open the first grain- to- glass distillery in Rochester, New York since Prohibition; he was about to join a fellowship of state-wide farm distillers who craft solely from NY grains; and he was about to become one of the youngest master distillers in their ranks at just 24-years- old. But the owner and head distiller of Black Button Distilling, Jason Barrett, had something better – something with even more substance – in mind. “My family has manufactured buttons for four generations and as a kid, when I would work in the factory sorting buttons, I wasn’t very good at it,” Jason explained. “When
I was about seven-years- old, we found out that I am colorblind. The joke became that if I took over the factory, we would have to only make black buttons. So, now, I do make black buttons – just the liquid kind,” he laughed. But the actual buttons that inspired the name Black Button Distilling are no laughing matter, Jason explained. “My mother is the president of Shantz and Associates today, but the story of that company goes back to time of World War One. It has survived the Depression, two major recessions, two world wars, and here it is now into the fourth generation. Those buttons have even closed suits worn by presidents, popes, and kings.” The Black Button Distilling logo is as much a symbol of the American entrepreneurial spirit as it is a stamp of excellence in an industry that’s all about “raw ingredients and raw product.”
By David MacDonald B ooming!” Jason bellowed when I asked him how the craft distillery industry in NY State was doing. “Well, in our first full year back in 2013 we did $62,000 in sales and now we are doing that amount roughly every ten days. New York has some of the best laws for craft distilling. We can have tasting rooms, sell bottles and self-distribute. Add in a very supportive population and it’s a great recipe for success. Last I heard there were 180 craft distillers in the state, and 115 of them were farm distillers like us.” “Distillers are usually very friendly with each other,” he continued. “There are only so many folks who are going through what you’re going through. And who else can you geek out with about yeast cell wall health and industry shop talk. Plus, we all help each other find good vendors, good distributors. Last but certainly not least, most distillers are good people who enjoy a good drink and a good time. So, it’s no surprise that we enjoy each other’s company.” For Jason, these good libations, or rather, vibrations are an integral part to Black Button’s continuing success. In early 2016, Black Button Distilling capped 642 bottles of Collab- oration Whiskey with The O’Begley Distillery of Pittsford, NY. “Black Button and O’Begley have grown up alongside each other in Rochester. What I love most about craft distill- ing is that we come together as a community to help each other. To put our collective skills together for this unique blend of whiskey has been a great learning experience and an opportunity to bring a unique bottling to the Roches-
OCTOBER 2017 • SPOTLIGHT ON BUSINESS MAGAZINE
Lilac Gin. Garden Gin. It is all coming from the best in the game. “First and foremost, I make what I like to drink: gin; vodka; bourbon; bourbon cream; moonshine. You spend a lot of time around these products and if you don’t love what you’re selling, it will never work,” Jason said. Garden Gin is Black Button’s most recent seasonal release. For this collaborative batch, Jason and Jeff teamed-up with the New York Wine and Culinary Center to create a botani- cally- balanced, smooth finish gin that satisfies gin connois- seurs and cocktail volunteers alike. “Our Bespoke Bourbon Cream is also pretty popular among the cocktail crowd. We always recommend the Root Beer Float recipe: two ounces of our Bourbon Cream – which is like Irish cream, only better – and three ounces of Saranac root beer on ice. It’s delicious.” “I’ve got my favorites, for sure,” Jason continued. “A Citrus Gin Gimlet made with two ounces of our Citrus Gin and one ounce of lime juice; a Manhattan made with two ounces of our Four Grain Bourbon and one ounce of sweet Spanish vermouth – with a cherry on top; Our Apple Pie Moonshine in a Harvest Mule with ginger beer or our 20-Plate Vodka in a Roc City Ice Water are also great cocktails.” This fall, Black Button Distilling will be adding to its col- lection. “We’re releasing a straight rye whiskey, as well as several new gins with unique fruits like loganberry and kiwi. We also are working on a spirit-infused chocolate. Because, I mean, craft spirits in craft chocolate – what could be wrong with that?” Food pairings, Jason insisted, aren’t limited to craft beers and wines. “I like bourbon cocktails with red meat like steak, for instance. And gin, to me, suits a summer time lemon-soaked chicken. I think it’s all about bringing like or contrasting flavors together. Heavy stone fruit flavors go well with a Manhattan. Light and citrusy notes go more with a gimlet.” Jason explained that while Black Button is in essence a manufacturing business that frequently allows him to flex his creative muscles with new and innovative products, it’s also “a bar business and a distribution business.” “We are widely distributed west of Route 81 in Upstate New York and we can be found throughout New York State. Black Button is also available in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Kentucky, Maryland and DC, as well as Georgia, Missis- sippi, and Alabama. That level of commitment means that our relationships with suppliers and distributors are para- mount. We are probably closest with our farmers; they grow every ounce of our raw ingredients. There’s the farmer who grows our grain; the orchard for our cider; the dairy for our cream; and the yeast company for the proprietary strains of yeast we use. All told, Black Button has 348 vendors we (If you are the self-appointed mixologist of your social circle, this part is for you.)
Jeff Fairbrother, Black Button Distilling’s Production Distiller (L) has prior experi- ence as a commercial brewer, and Jason Barrett, Black Button Distilling President/ Head Distiller (R), is a former accountant. The combination of their diverse backgrounds has resulted in some of Black Button Distilling’s most innovative products.
ter community,” he said in a February 2016 interview with BevNet.com.
One particular opportunity Jason has brought to the distill- ing community goes above and beyond.
Black Button offers two distilling classes “to help new dis- tillers or folks considering joining the industry to learn how to make whiskey, vodka, and gin,” Jason explained. “We also help with safety issues and licensing.” The Craft Distill- ing Experience in a three-day group class with select dates in February and June. The Master Distilling Class is a three- day private class available January through August, “but it must be planned well in advance.” Having apprenticed at some of America’s most well-re- spected big brand commercial distilleries, Jason’s lesson plans have a real industry appeal – an appeal not lost on entrepreneurs. The Black Button classroom seems to be occupied more and more these days, partly because current and pro- spective gin distillers alike got word earlier this year: two of Black Button’s distillers are in The Guild. In April, Black Button’s Head Production Distiller, Jeff Fairbrother and Jason became the second and fourth Americans to be “welcomed into the Worshipful Company of Distillers and so named Warden Rectifiers of the British Gin Guild” since its incorporation by Royal Charter in 1638.
It is that good.
They are that good.
Citrus Forward Gin. Barrel Reserve Citrus Forward Gin.
work with regularly. And we help support probably 10-times the number of employees we have.”
Black Button Distilling directly employs 62 New Yorkers, 16 of whom are full-time. “The rest are brand ambassa- dors,” Jason explained. “I think it takes a special kind of person to join a start-up distillery; you have to be able to wear many hats, and the hours are often late into the night. And although you are constantly surrounded by spirits, you can’t always imbibe – so a good amount of self-restraint is also key,” he laughed. “We produce about 11,000 12-bottle cases of spirits a year,” Jason continued. “That’s about seven tractor trailer loads or a decent Monday at a big distillery like Jack Daniels or Jim Beam. By comparison, we’re pretty small. Now, as far as the craft world goes, we are probably in the top ten percentile of family-owned, independent distillers in the USA – so we definitely have our place in the market. We’re big enough to invest in quality product and training for our people, but small enough that every batch is still handmade. Someone asked me the other day what kind of computer program runs our equipment and I just laughed and said, ‘We’re all manual here.’” Jason ultimately attributes his confidence in his hands-on abilities to his childhood. “I’m fiercely independent. My parents were very much the opposite of helicopter parents. They were supportive, but encouraged me to figure life out on my own. Family dinner was also like a crash course in business. My parents would talk about their day and help each other figure things out about each other’s businesses. I was too young to really apply much of it then, but I soaked it up like a sponge. My first job was with a small company and since I was young and single I was sent all over the country to deal with problems in the business. I got to see so many things and found out early on that I could accom- plish what I set my mind to. Then I went into accounting and was helping other small businesses and as I saw my cus- tomers working on their businesses, I became convinced that I could find something I was passionate about and be successful.” “Add in a very supportive population and it’s a great recipe for success.” Black Button Distilling is located at 85 Railroad Street in Rochester, NY near the Rochester Public Market and only twenty from Exit 390 on the NYS Thruway. The on-site tasting room is equipped to host birthdays, business meetings, charity events, family gatherings and company parties. “Where else can you also take a factory tour, taste artisan spirits in a flight, and take some home with you if you like?” Jason said. “And our Buffalo tasting room is just four kilometres from the Peace Bridge.”
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BLACK BUTTON DISTILLING
149 Swan Street, Buffalo, NY 14203
as spotlighted in the OCTOBER 2017 issue of SPOTLIGHT ON BUSINESS MAGAZINE
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