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The Key Bourbon Distillation Process Secret: It’s All In The Finger Lakes


The Key Bourbon Distillation Process Secret: It’s All In The Finger Lakes


Written by Thomas Adams 
September 27, 2013

If you took our bourbon distillation process and recipe and tried to recreate it anywhere else, you would fail time and time again. Just ask our Founder and Master Distiller Jason Barrett! “If you picked up our equipment, took it to Buffalo, and used different water and different grain, it would taste totally different for a variety of reasons. [Our spirits] can only really be replicated here,” said Jason.

So, what makes the Rochester area so great for distilling? From the water, to the terroir, to the weather, the beautiful Finger Lakes Region is the secret behind our superb bourbon distillation process. 

Is Water Really That Important to the Bourbon Distillation Process?

You might not think about it much, but water really is one of the most important ingredients to an utterly delicious bourbon. Poor water quality equals poor bourbon quality—and nobody wants to sip on that. Simple H2O has the power to make or break your recipe. “… Water is involved in each step of the distilling process, from mashing to cooling to reduction, and it can often be a source of unresolved consternation for distillers. It has an immense effect on the flavor and clarity of a spirit…” (Devon Trevathan).

Did you know that the minerals found in different “types” of water can impact the bourbon distillation process? Let’s talk about groundwater vs. surface water. “Groundwater can reside in aquifers for hundreds or even thousands of years, during which time further minerals dissolve into it” (Devon Trevathan). Iron is one example of a mineral that seeps into groundwater over time. And trust us, you don’t want the taste of iron in your glass.

On the other hand, surface water doesn’t spend as much time exposed to rock and soil. Surface water can be found in your lakes, rivers, and streams. Because surface water doesn’t receive as much exposure to rock and soil, there is much less time for undesirable minerals to creep in. Because Black Button is located in the City of Rochester, we’re able to tap into one of the most pristine surface water sources in the country: Hemlock Lake, one of New York State’s famous Finger Lakes.

Courtesy of Life in the Finger Lakes
Courtesy of Life in the Finger Lakes

What Makes Hemlock Lake’s Water So Great?

Water makes all the difference when it comes to taste. Water from Hemlock Lake is filtered through limestone, giving it a purity that amplifies the flavors in our grains. But how does limestone purify our bourbon? Good question. Limestone is the main element that washes away unwanted minerals—like that nasty iron!  

 We also have the benefit of Hemlock Lake being the source of Rochester’s public drinking water, making it as pure and clean as possible. “… Several restrictions have been in place to keep the lake clean. In addition to restricting shoreline development, boats are limited to 17 feet and 10 horsepower, and swimming is not permitted. Boating and fishing are completely prohibited in the northernmost part of the lake” (Kyra Bean).

Courtesy of Life in the Finger Lakes | Photo by Bill Banaszewski
Courtesy of Life in the Finger Lakes | Photo by Bill Banaszewski

 Rich Soil Makes Rich Bourbon

 Living in the Finger Lakes, we are lucky to have soil that is ideal for farming. “Our soil is exceptional – the extensive prime farmland of the Finger Lakes is more productive than 90 percent of the rest of the land on the planet. As any local farmer or earth-moving contractor can tell you, our soil can be obstinate and heavy or accommodating and soft. We have dark, almost black muck soils, beige sands, mottled clays, and rich brown loams, perfect for cultivating any temperate crop” (Jim Ochterski).

 All of our grains are grown at Edgewood Farms in Groveland, New York – a nearly 1,600-acre farm due south of Rochester – meaning they are each farmed in that wonderful, rich soil famous to the Finger Lakes. These grains enhance the bourbon distillation process and gives our bourbon the authentic taste of the region that it comes from.

 Going back to water, soil actually plays a huge role in keeping water fresh. Terroir and water are more connected than you’d think. “The minerals freed up during the chemistry and biology of soil formation have produced the character of the fresh water that sustains everyone living in or visiting the Finger Lakes.” (Jim Ochterski).

Edgewood Farms in Groveland, NY
Edgewood Farms in Groveland, NY

Our Aging Bourbon Prospers in the Finger Lakes Climate

 If you’ve ever spent enough time in the Finger Lakes, you know that the possibility of experiencing all four seasons in one day is not that crazy of an idea. “The weather is incredibly unpredictable. It can be hot in the morning, and 40 degrees at night. That amount of [fluctuation in] temperature is a little difficult to dress for, but it is actually ideal for making whiskey,” said Jason. “Every time you get a 20-to-30-degree temperature swing, the whiskey pushes into the wood when it’s warm, and pulls out of the wood when it’s cold. [This causes the whiskey] to extract more of those wood sugars, more of those tannins, more color.”

 Taking advantage of our famously unpredictable climate, we store our aging barrels in a metal-skinned warehouse. With no heat or electricity, the temperature inside the building reflects what’s going on outside. “When it’s -6 degrees outside in January, it’s -6 degrees inside. It’s a dark, navy blue building. In the heat of summer, when it’s 90 degrees outside, it’s 100 degrees inside. We get a 25-to-30-degree temperature swing every 24 hours, and a 110-degree temperature swing over the course of the year,” said Jason. “It’s a dramatic amount of heat and loss changes that ages the whiskey faster and deeper. We get more complexity out [of the bourbon during these extreme temperature changes].”

Black Button Barrels in the Warehouse
Black Button Barrels in the Warehouse

Are You Thirsty for Some Bourbon Yet?

Now that you’re an expert on our fresh water, rich soil, and fascinating climate, you’ve got to try our signature Four Grain Straight Bourbon for yourself. A superior bourbon distilling process equals superior tasting spirits. And we’ve got good news! You can get a bottle shipped directly to your door in over 40 states here. Our Four Grain Straight Bourbon has a big aroma of fresh oak, toffee, and leather along with light caramel and vanilla flavors and a clean finish. It’s the spirit that captured Jason’s heart and the reason he’s dedicated to craft distilling.


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