In three years Jason Barrett has built a distillery from nothing, earned national accolades for his spirits and added local jobs to Rochester’s economy—all under the age of 30.
Last year, Barrett, 28, successfully led his company, Black Button Distilling, to expand distribution to 11 states. This year he plans to increase sales by 50 percent.
“2015 was a bit of a whirlwind,” Barrett says. “Luckily we made every order; we kept to our quality standards. We didn’t let any of that slip, but it was very tough.”
Barrett opened the distillery in 2012 in a 5,000-square-foot space on Railroad Street near the public market. A 5,800-square-foot storage facility opened last year to accommodate growth.
This year Barrett decided to limit all manufacturing to the firm’s headquarters.
“85 Railroad Street is our manufacturing hub,” Barrett says. “This is where we make every drop of everything we do. We really committed back in June that Black Button will always be 100 percent made, bottled at the 85 Railroad Street location.”
The decision was difficult but necessary to keep the business focused, he says.
“In essence we put a ceiling on our growth, and granted, that ceiling is high—it’s 5,000 bottles a week—but it does mean there’s an end point to the growth,” Barrett says. “We’re not going to get bigger than that, and some of that was very helpful because it was a realization of, ‘OK, we don’t have to chase every bottle.’
“We now need to build the strongest company, the best company, not the biggest company,” he adds.
Today the company produces 1,450 bottles each week. Barrett expects the staff of seven full-timers will grow to a dozen by the end of the year. Staff additions included a winemaker and brewer who helped boost the health of the firm’s yeast, leading to a 20 percent increase in yield.
“As we’ve started to better nurture our yeast and take care of that yeast colony in a better way, the way the wineries do, we’ve started to see significant positive results that that’s brought to our products both in terms of increased yield but also increased quality,” Barrett says. “It’s a very unusual practice for distilleries. Distilleries really don’t usually worry that much about their yeast, whereas with wineries it’s a critical component.”
The distillery’s nine products include its Citrus Forward Gin, which won multiple awards and was named the “Official Gin of Summer” in July 2015 by Food & Beverage magazine. The accolades prompted calls from distributors.
“It was really the Citrus Forward Gin that launched all of that (growth),” Barrett says. “We had hoped to add, like, two or three states, and in some ways 11 was too many—(we were) a victim of our own success. It was good but it was very explosive growth, which can be very painful on a small organization. We really had to firm up our processes and our procedures in order to ramp up our production.”
Black Button released its bourbon last September, which helped the company move into the black for the year in December.
“That’s what I got into the business to do—to make bourbon,” Barrett says. “To finally see our fully aged bourbon coming due and hitting the shelves and getting that feedback from the market was really just incredibly gratifying and so exciting.
“I don’t consider myself a particularly emotional person, but that was a very emotional state in the fall, just getting to see all the positive reflects of that, getting to see the reviews come in from the critics.”
Entering the craft distilling world was no small challenge.
“I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is that as an entrepreneur you have to get better at not chasing every opportunity,” he says. “You really have to focus and take the ones that are aligned with your business strategy and are going to produce long-term growth. Pretty much each time we’ve gone after something that seemed big and kind of quick, easy money, it’s either not panned out or it’s come back to have negative consequences otherwise.”
Roughly 400 craft distilleries were operating around the country when Barrett entered the industry in 2012. Today there are roughly 700, including 76 in New York. Local distillery owners share a camaraderie, he says.
“In many ways we really don’t look at them as competition,” Barrett says. “First of all, there’s so few people that know how to run the equipment that we run that you end up becoming very friendly with the folks who run similar equipment—because you can only geek out and talk about yeast health with so many people in this world.”
Producing 5,000 bottles a week will take a lot of effort, but the staff Barrett has selected to surround himself with has made everything worth it, he says.
“The most exciting thing is getting to work with my staff,” Barrett says. “It’s a lot of long hours, it’s a lot of hard work (and) it’s just amazing to get to know these other people on a very personal level and see what this dream can mean for them. Black Button is bigger than I would have ever imagined it because my staff has made it their own.”
Black Button’s head distiller won’t sit still anytime soon.
“The most interesting thing to me people (ask is), ‘What’s the exit strategy?’” Barrett says. “I like what we’re doing here; I don’t really have an exit strategy.”
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