ROCHESTER CITY NEWSPAPER
just inside the entrance of Black Button Distilling on Railroad Street — right next to the door that separates the business’s product and bar area from the back room packed with barrels and equipment — is a large poster board that lays out Black Button’s process. The simple diagram walks the viewer through the distilling process, from preparing the grains and turning long-chain starches into short-chain sugars before going to the fermentation tanks and the shiny hybrid pot still. But one of the more noticeable facts comes at the very beginning of the process.
Black Button is a grain-to-glass distillery — the first of its kind in Rochester since Prohibition — and takes it a step further by working with only one farm, Edgewood Farms in Groveland, for all of its corn, wheat, and rye. (Black Button gets its malted barley from Rochester’s Pioneer Malting.) The distillery does everything in-house, from starting with grain that’s stored in silos behind the building to hand filling and labeling each finished bottle.
“We have a big philosophy here that the closer you are to nature, the better,” says Jason Barrett, Black Button’s founder and head distiller. “Higher quality grains grown in specific ways yield better products. Rather than trying to get as much corn per acre that you can get, that’s the opposite of what we want to do. The farm uses all-natural, cow-shit fertilizer. No GMO corn either. What you get is this nice hard red corn. It would be awful corn on the cob, but it makes for a really pungent, really great corn whiskey.”
It’s a philosophy that has resonated for Black Button. The distillery, tasting room, and retail store opened to the public in January 2014, and the business has already seen remarkable growth. When Barrett started, there were only three full-time employees (not counting himself and his father). By June 1, there will be seven. The business installed two 15-ton silos — one to store corn and one for wheat — behind the building in April. Black Button has a second still coming in and another bank of fermenters, and it just signed a lease on a new warehouse space to store aging barrels and packaged product.
To top it off, Black Button’s Citrus Forward Gin — a crisp gin that finishes with an orange tone — won a bronze medal in the contemporary gin category at the American Craft Spirits Association 2015 Awards.
“Third out of 458 in your first year is not bad,” Barrett says.
Along with its Citrus Forward Gin, Black Button makes a moonshine, wheat vodka, professional proof vodka, apple pie moonshine, and a bourbon. (While Black Button’s bourbon will be its signature product, the majority of what they have created is still finishing its two-year aging process in white oak barrels. The distillery did launch a “little barrel” series on Black Friday last year; the smaller, five-gallon barrels take only four months to age.) And on May 1, the distillery used lilac petals and complementing botanicals to make a limited run Lilac Gin.
Barrett says the American Craft Spirits award has opened the door for Black Button to reach new markets and choose the distributors the distillery wants to work with. Its spirits are now available in New York and New Jersey, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Michigan, and Georgia. And Barrett is aiming to have the whole East Coast covered by the end of 2015 or beginning of next year.
The name, Black Button, is a tribute to Barrett’s family and its history of manufacturing in Rochester. Barrett’s great-grandfather started by sweeping floors at the Shantz Button Factory — the factory that’s been converted into Button Lofts — before becoming a shop foreman. His son (Barrett’s grandfather) ended up owning the company by the mid-1980’s. Barrett grew up working with his family in the factory, but being color blind, could only “see” the black buttons.
A native of Penfield, Barrett graduated from SUNY Cortland with a political science degree and took a job in Washington, D.C. A long-time home brewer, he started to taking classes in distilling and was sucked in.
With distilling, there are just so many worlds of flavors to still explore,” he says. “Especially in the whiskey and gin categories.” Barrett adds that craft distilling is still a young, smaller industry, which excites him about the possibilities to make new spirits.
Barrett started going to distilling schools across the country — Chicago, Colorado, Kentucky, Michigan, Cornell — and his hobby started to morph into a business idea.
“I was a young guy who had a good amount of vacation time on my hands, and just going to learn about distilling was fun for me,” he says. “Then when this started to become more of a serious thought, I realized I was only one program away from a master distiller’s certificate. If I could get into one of those programs, I’d probably have the knowledge I needed to really feel confident opening my own place.”
At only 24 years old, Barrett pitched his business idea to banks in 2012, quit his job and moved back to Rochester in early 2013, and got to work building the distillery. (The space where Black Button is located was once dry storage for its neighbor, Rohrbach Brewing Company.)
As it grew closer to opening, funds for Black Button were quickly running out, so Barrett launched a $20,000 Kickstarter campaign to afford the barrels needed to make the company’s bourbon. The distillery was able to raise $26,000 and bought 26 barrels.
“It was really neat to see the Rochester community come out and support it,” Barrett says. “We’ve had a lot of these people come in and see their barrels.”
Black Button offers tours of its facilities, and its tasting room is open Tuesday through Saturday with a menu that highlights specialty cocktails. All of Black Button’s products — and a large selection of other locally produced bar-related products — are for sale in the distillery.
In addition to the business’s rapid growth, Barrett is also spearheading the Rochester Craft Beverage Trail, a loose drinking path that highlights locally made craft beers, spirits, and wines — including Rohrbach, Roc Brewing, Iron Smoke Whiskey, and Heron Hill Tasting Room.
“This past December,” Barrett says with a laugh, “I was able to define that we’ve been successful because I was able to get out of my parents’ house and into my own apartment.”