From buttons to bourbon

Local distillery celebrates ten years
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Jason Barrett, photo by Michael Hanlon

The Barrett family had been making but- tons since 1922, but in 2012 they transitioned from metals to grains when master distiller Jason Barrett founded Black Button Distilling. When it came time for Barrett to take over the family business as a fourth-generation owner, there was one small problem … he’s colorblind. For years the family joked that if Barrett took over, he’d only be able to make black buttons. Now he does—of the liquid variety.

Barrett got involved with distilling when he worked for an accounting company in Washington, DC, and one of his clients happened to be a distillery. He had been home brewing at the time, making beer in his kitchen and found that everything he loved about making beer could be trans- lated to whiskey.

“It was a much younger industry full of a lot of opportunity, and it just seemed like the time was right,” Barrett says.“It aligned with my interests to do the perfectly reasonable thing—quit my job, sell my 401k, move into my parents’ basement, buy a still, and start making whiskey for a living.”

You can make beer at home, but you can’t make whiskey at home, so Barrett decided to further his education. He enrolled in five different distilling programs taught in Chicago and Virginia and at Michigan State and Cornell universities before ultimately completing his master distilling thesis at Dry Fly Distilling in Spokane,Washington. “The rest I had to learn on the job,” Barrett says. “I like to say if you’ve got one of our first bottles that we ever made, it’s really a piece of Rochester history. You should put that on the shelf and maybe drink something we make now.We learned a lot in the last ten years for sure.”

To honor his family’s legacy, Barrett created Black Button with his grandfather’s values of hard work, entrepreneurship, and

community in mind. While pouring these into his passion for crafting spirits, there was one other cornerstone he wanted the company to uphold: using locally sourced ingredients. Barrett did just that, making Black Button Distilling Rochester’s first grain-to-glass distillery since Prohibition.

“I always wanted to use locally grown ingredients to make the highest quality spirits here in New York,” Barrett says. “It allows us not only to highlight the bounty of agriculture here in Western New York, but better-quality ingredients make a better-quality product.”

In terms of production, Black Button is completely hands-on.

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Photo by Michael Hanlon

“We are fully involved from when the grain goes in the ground as a seed, all the way through it being grown and harvest- ed, then brought to our distillery, crushed, mashed, fermented, distilled, aged, and ultimately bottled. We’re even involved in distributing those products all the way to the restaurants and liquor stores,” Barrett says.

Black Button is also one of the six founding distilleries of Empire Rye, an association dedicated to establishing and maintaining a high standard of whiskey.

“All of these standards are about two things: how whiskey was made in the New York area prior to Prohibition, and what we, the eight original distillers, believe will increase the quality of the whiskey,” Barrett says. “If folks want to join us within the Empire Rye association, they need to live up to these quality standards so that consumers know they’ll get a high-quality product. We also tried to leave enough variation so that individual distillers could still put their own unique spin and unique mark on the whiskey without compromising the values.”

Both Barrett and his business partner Jeff Fairbrother are UK Warden Rectifiers, which is the master distiller equivalent in Europe. There are only five people with that title in the United States, and two of them work at Black Button. The entire team is made up of eighty-three employees with roughly sixty of them located in Rochester.The other twenty can be found all over the country, much like Barrett’s spirits. Black Button’s products are sold in fourteen states up and down the east coast and reach as far west as Colorado, and they are even sold in Japan. The company sold its one-millionth bottle in July of 2019, and, only nineteen months later, celebrated its two-millionth bottle.

Katherine Ball is the director of consumer engagement at Black Button and has worked with Barrett for many years.

“I have always been excited by the beverage world and ‘how it’s made,’” Ball says. “The passion for producing a great product and serving it to our fans all over is an indescribable feeling. The skill sets the team brings and innovation for ‘what is next’ is what keeps me here for five years and counting.”

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Photo by Michael Hanlon

June 6 marked Black Button’s tenth anniversary, and, in celebration of the milestone, Barrett and Fairbrother released their oldest blend yet—a seven-year-old, three-barrel blend dating back to 2015. Roughly 240 bottles were produced. Barrett describes Black Button’s signature profile as shooting for “deep character, deep flavor but also ease of drinkability, something that you can both put in a cocktail and also sip on neat.” With this collection being an older expression, Barrett was looking for more of that oak, sweet taste.

Black Button has received dozens of accolades across the world, including winning Best in New York State from the 2021 Heartland Whiskey Competition as well as tying for Best Bourbon with a Kentucky- made bourbon at the same competition. They received a ninety-point rating by Whiskey Advocate for its Cask Strength Four Grain Bourbon, and the Bespoke Bourbon Cream won gold at the Concours International de Lyon competition and the John Barleycorn Awards.

Black Button’s bourbon came from Barrett’s love of Bourbon Manhattans.

“If I’m making a Manhattan, and it’s not with Black Button, I start with two ounces of wheated bourbon, half an ounce of rye; then add my vermouth and bitters. Our four-grain bourbon just takes one of those steps out. We’ve got the wheat and the rye right in the bottle with the bourbon, so you can take that, add your vermouth and some bitters, and you’re ready to go.”

For customers wondering what to try, Barrett always recommends the bourbon cream first.

“It’s very easy to drink and is very approachable. Our bourbon cream is always a home run with consumers. If you like it, maybe try its big brother, some of our bourbon, and then if you’re real adventurous, try our gin,” Barrett says.

Barrett and his team are community focused and love to show people how they make high-quality spirits right here in the Rochester area. Black Button offers tours, tastings, and numerous classes, including in-person cocktail classes on July 12 and 20 and August 17 and 18 as well as a Bourbon Blending Experience on August 24. Other classes can be found online, along with information regarding tours, reservations (not required), and spirits. Better yet, stop by the distillery and meet the team in person, located at 85 Railroad Street open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Categories: Food & Drink, Grow, Grow – Top Story