ROCHESTER BUSINESS JOURNAL
By: Thomas Adams September 27, 2013
The still at Black Button Distilling is in place and being connected to the boiler this week, and the rest of the equipment is scheduled to arrive next month as Jason Barrett prepares to launch his craft distillery near the Rochester Public Market.
Barrett, 26, had hoped to be open by now but is awaiting approval of federal licensing, which then triggers state approval. Federal approval could come as soon as Monday, he said.
“The new target date is Dec. 1,” Barrett said this week, “but it all depends on those licenses, and we don’t have a lot of control over what Albany or Washington does with those.”
Black Button will be the first grain-to-glass distillery in Monroe County. Barrett is investing $1 million to set up his business at 85 Railroad St.
“Some of the individual pieces of equipment are over $100,000 and have to be custom-built to our specifications, so there’s no sending them back,” he said. “There’s a 2 million BTU boiler back there that had to be all plumbed and natural gas. The whole safety system had to go in and be hardwired.”
Black Button shares a building with Rohrbach Brewing Co., spawned by building owner John Urlaub.
“I really wanted to be right down here at the Public Market,” said Barrett, president and head distiller. “We get great foot traffic, and it’s the kind of people that’ll be interested in our product.
“We were going to be right across the street, but when that deal fell through, at the same time we met John Urlaub. He was giving us a tour and made a joke about it being too bad that we couldn’t move in here. I looked at him and said, ‘Well, why can’t we?’ We negotiated the lease, and a few months later we moved in and started construction.”
Barrett signed a lease in April. Construction started in mid-May.
“The thing I’m most passionate about is the corn whiskey and the bourbon we’re going to put out,” he said. “The bourbon takes a minimum of two years to age. Pretty much every time we’ve got an extra thousand dollars, we’re going to put away another barrel of whiskey.
“When are we cash-positive? Hopefully sometime next summer. When do we actually turn a profit and stop building inventory? It could be eight or nine years, because every time you’ve got some extra cash lying around, you’ve got to decide what you want to do with it. We want to put away as many barrels as possible.”
The American Distilling Institute says it has 400 craft distillery members. There were 69 craft distillers with distilled spirits plant licenses issued by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau in 2003 when the ADI was formed, its website says.
The ADI expects as many as 800 craft distillers in the United States and Canada by the end of 2015. New York ranked second to California in the number of craft distilleries, a 2012 ADI study found, but had produced fewer than 50,000 cases.
The lack of volume is largely the result of the newness of the industry in New York but also is due to limitations of the state’s Farm Distillery Law, passed in 2007, the study says. The law requires distilleries to use primarily New York farm products.
Born and raised in Rochester, Barrett studied political science at SUNY College at Cortland and took some MBA classes at George Washington University.
His interest in craft beers and liquors was piqued while he was working in Washington, D.C., as a business consultant for Paychex Inc., doing small-business payrolls for businesses such as DC Brau Brewing Co., Beltway Brewing Co. and Catoctin Creek Distilling Co. LLC.
“I had been a home brewer for many years and got to know a lot of the craft breweries that were coming on line in D.C.,” Barrett said. “I became very good friends with several of them. I looked at buying one, actually, at one point. When that deal fell apart, I decided I would just open my own brewery.”
After doing some business planning and research, he decided craft distilling was of more interest than craft brewing.
“I really like experimenting with things, walking people through different taste profiles and explaining what we did differently,” Barrett said. “There’s a lot more opportunity for that in distilling, and I like great whiskey as much as I like great beer.”
His education is a product of several distilling schools, including programs offered by Michigan State University, Cornell University, Catoctin Creek in northern Virginia, the Koval Inc. distillery in Chicago and Dry Fly Distilling in Spokane, Wash.
“The guys in Chicago are really good with yeast management,” Barrett said. “The guys from Cornell know a ton about barrel aging. There are some folks in Denver that have the process of how you move the whiskey through the facility down really well.”
Each school offered a seminar of three to five days.
“Over the course of two years, I started going to them sort of as hobbies when I still had my day job,” Barrett said. “I would take my vacations and go do that.
“Towards the end, I did my master distilling work in Spokane and pretty much quit my job two weeks later.”
The Black Button distillery includes a 300-gallon hybrid pot still to make whiskey, vodka and gin. Barrett plans to start with a wheat-based vodka, a citrus-forward gin-its orange and lemon flavors create more of a citrus taste than regular gin-and an unaged corn whiskey.
There will be four full-time employees, along with several part-time brand ambassadors and bartenders with day jobs or other sources of income who want to promote Black Button beverages.
“There may be a Wednesday night where we’re doing two tastings at liquor stores, we might have a private party here and we might need to be bottling,” Barrett said. “I might need 18 people, and yet the very next day I might need two.
“Having that sort of bench of people who are very flexible, where they want to do it to be involved, will work out very well for us.”
Black Button will be one of a few craft distilleries in the region. Those include Finger Lakes Distilling and Myer Farm Distillers on Seneca Lake and the newly opened Apple Country Spirits in Williamson, Wayne County.
“Generally, distilleries tend to focus on either fruits or grains just because that’s the equipment you need to process stuff,” Barrett said. “We have all the equipment to grind grain. I can do wheat, rye, triticale, oats, really anything. But if you brought me 10,000 pounds of apples, I don’t have any pressing equipment.”
Barrett plans to sell his products, as well as other merchandise, on location. He also wants to do tastings and tours, private events and classes on how whiskey is made.
A dozen liquor stores and two dozen bars have inquired about Black Button products, Barrett said.
“It’ll be at least an extra 60 days where we’ll be able to sell it here but won’t be able to sell it through wholesalers because we haven’t gone through New York State price posting,” he said.
“As soon as we get our state and federal licenses, we can start making and tasting, and we make 900 bottles a week. It only takes about three weeks to get started from when those licenses come in to actually having the first product.”
Additional licenses are required for labeling.
“We’ll already have bottles in the back, full of product waiting to be labeled,” Barrett said.
“We want people to come and visit us, certainly, but we also don’t want them to have to come here every time they want a bottle.”