Whiskey on the regulatory rocks

Local distillers conquer state red tape and tricky recipes in pursuit of a dream



Jason Barrett is the master brewer at Black Button Distillery in the Market District.

David Ditzel

For all its downsides, there are worse places in America to distill whiskey than New York State.

In Virginia, bootlegged alcohol is seen as enough of a problem that the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control is a virtual standing army. In Kentucky, Jack Daniels Whiskey has the dubious distinction of being distilled in Moore, a dry county (you can distill Jack there, you just can’t drink it). In fact, draconian measures in other states make NewYork’s oft-cited onerous regulations seem like silly paperwork problems.

That’s not to say Jason Barrett, master distiller at Rochester’s Black Button Distillery, hasn’t had his share of challenges and setbacks. He started his career brewing beer for college buddies because, bad though the dorm-brew may have been, it was still better than the Keystone Ice popular at the time. Now that he has matured and gotten the training required to open his own distillery, the regulations New York imposes have vexed him and put his operation well behind schedule.

Standing beside a gleaming rank of virgin steel and copper pipes and pots—equipment that looks like a Steampunk atom bomb and will soon produce 900 bottles of jump juice—he waxes philosophical.

“The country just isn’t over Prohibition yet,” Barrett tells a group of students eager to learn the intricacies of distillation.

The class was organized through Rochester’s own crowd-sourced learning community, the Rochester Brainery. Those willing to shell out a quick few dollars for this class got a chance to pack into the pristine white interior of a not-yet-active distillery and learn how it will all soon happen.

Black Button is part of a cadre of local pioneers in New York State’s ever-deepening relationship with hootch. Struggling to find their place alongside venerated hillside wineries and seasoned veterans in urban breweries, distilleries vie for attention in an increasingly diverse market.

That diversity comes at the behest of enthusiastic neophytes willing to both embrace and challenge the ancient ways of distillation. Neophytes like Tommy Brunett (known largely for his continuing rock-n-roll career in Rochester with bands like Spacetrucker and the eponymous Tommy Brunett Band). His brainchild is Iron Smoke Whiskey.

During the countless hours of traveling and gigs a musician endures, Brunett has pondered why brewers char the barrels whiskey is aged in but don’t normally smoke the ingredients. An aficionado of whiskey himself, Brunett knows that where there’s smoke, there’s fire—but rarely is there smoke in the firewater.

It is true that whiskey barrels are generally charred. But that char does not impart flavor, as many assume. The char is charcoal, and just like in a fish tank, that charcoal is used to filter impurities out, not infuse flavor. Fortunately, that charcoal also filters out the dreaded fusel oils (the stuff of hangovers in lesser spirits).

With gusto, recycled whiskey barrels, and a little help from his friends, Brunett set off to find the right combination of applewood smoking and six grains to yield the taste he wanted. Nine batches (and no small amount of time, money, and effort) later, he emerged with a potion fit for bottling.

The result, which Brunett and I sampled clandestinely in the local eatery where we met, is a palliative that is rich and sweet, with a stout bottom end of herbaceous notes and nutty wood flavors. The smoke comes through in that bottom end, amping the pecan and walnut tastes. Sweet whiskeys too often overwhelm with clove and spice, but this one is balanced and brooding.

The whiskey is good—and this isn’t some rock star marketing gimmick to sell records at a gig. Brunett is serious about whiskey, and he’s serious about his mission.

“This is really about local ingredients and our local community,” he intones, a note of gravity in his otherwise easy-going troubadour’s tone.

At Black Button, Barrett agrees. “I’d rather be Rochester’s distillery than part of some larger pool,” he says. Each of these brands focuses on local products, with Black Button sourcing from Edgewood Farms in Groveland. Just as with wines, local input means distinctive output, especially for whiskey.

Black Button also plans to produce other alcohols, specializing in whiskey, gin, and vodka. Barrett seems particularly excited about their gin, which will feature cardamom, grains of paradise, and a goodly dosing of citrus peels in addition to juniper berries.

But while vodka is a nearly pure distillation of ethanol, and gin is really just “the original flavored vodka,” whiskey is close enough to its roots to retain a local character that makes it worth seeking out. Even at it’s most basic, whiskey represents its land of origin: American bourbons made of corn, rye whiskeys in Canada, and the ancient malted uisge beatha of Ireland.

After the grain selection and the mashing process, the barrel takes over. Months spent inside a dark, mysterious place produce a multitude of flavor-enhancing processes. Oak from the barrel infuses with the liquor, oxygen is slowly introduced, enzymes have their way with the contents of the barrel and alpha acelates—the stuff of the fragrance industry’s dreams—inform the liquor with aromas for the connoisseur to ponder.

Even in these quiet, isolated moments, region still imprints its mark.While the tradition of winemaking has always been to isolate the vino from as many outside influences as possible during the fermentation process, barrel aging is quite the opposite. Whiskey barrels are very commonly subjected to the same elements as the men who work in their distilleries, with variations in air temperature arresting and facilitating the process in alternation. The result is a highly seasonal, extremely local concoction.

There are currently only nine distilleries in New York making bourbons or whiskeys, so those few you can find should be cherished. For the liquor drinker, they represent the best New York state has to offer, and the dawn of a new era in the wonders of distillation.

Someday, you might be able to say you “remember them when.”

Thomas Belknap is a writer, musician, and developer who lives and works in the Rochester area. His blog, DragonFlyEye.net, explores science and technology news in upstate New York. 

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