There are a lot of things to say about Black Button Distilling. They’re the first distillery to set up shop in Rochester since prohibition, opening in January 2014 next door to Rohrbach Brewing Company on Railroad Street, with the brewery as their landlord. They make some undeniably beautiful cocktails, such as their lilac gin lemonade made with the distillery’s own ultraviolet colored lilac gin and garnished with lilac petals. And, perhaps most notably, they love New York. A lot.
In fact, 100 percent of all ingredients used at Black Button come from the Empire State, and to the best of their ability, locally from Western New York.
“All of our grains come from within 45 minutes of Rochester, the cream comes from Batavia, cider comes from Medina, all of our dry botanicals come from Stuart’s Spices,” said senior bartender Peggy Gilmartin. “In fact, some of the lilacs one year, I’m not sure if he did this year, but Jeff (Fairbrother), our production distiller actually put some of the lilacs from his house, so that was Ontario.”
Founder Jason Barrett says that while that isn’t the easiest way to do things, it’s not a big challenge either. But as a distillery grows, the need for certain specialty products grows, and it can potentially become a strain sourcing locally. Typically in that situation, a distillery will simply begin sourcing from outside their comfort zone to keep feeding the beast.
Black Button is not typical. On Thursday, May 10, the distillery announced the launch of Black Button Farm and Forestry, their own 19 acre slice of heaven in South Bristol which someday soon will host the growth of white oak for barrels, juniper for gin, herbs, spices and fresh honey.
“I’ve always been looking at real estate sites in the evening, going out to check some places, and it’s always been an issue to find a place with enough open land where we can do the juniper and botanicals, but also enough forestry where we already had a stand of white oak and could plant more white oak,” Barrett said. “And then finally this property came along, and it was not only affordable, but was just the size we were looking for, had enough of the open field to do the juniper and botanicals, and had the forestry section.”
The property was first picked out in November 2017. Now with the spring thaw finally here, the planting begins. Right now, the property is mostly just grass and a barn, but soon it will play host to a vibrant base for the distillery’s impressively diverse booze lineup.
“I think a lot of it is recognizing the economic impact of buying local, working with local, and then having consumers that are local, helping raise everyone essentially,” said public relations manager Arien Rozelle. “And a second fun impact of that is environmental. Ingredients have to travel a shorter distance to get where they need to be.”
While a lot of breweries and wineries tout their local sourcing, there is legal reason for that. If you’re a farm brewery in New York, for example, 40 percent of your hops and barley are legally required to be sourced from a New York farm. Next year, that will become 60 percent, and in 2024, 90 percent. Farm distilleries are required to be “primarily,” or 75 percent or more, made from New York ingredients. That other 25 percent can be sourced from anywhere, sometimes at a lower cost. In other words, Black Button does not have to do this, they choose to do it.
“I want to show what Western New York has to offer,” Barrett said. “It’s funny, when we give tours of the distillery, we give people the recipe for our bourbon, and occasionally, you’ll see someone taking down notes, almost secretively, but it’s not just the amount of grains we use. That’s important, but it’s also where those grains came from, the people that decided when to make the cuts, the water that we use, those are the things that make our bourbon ours.”
It’s incredibly difficult to copy a bourbon, for the simple reason that bourbon is finicky. That fact is on display if you take a step into Black Button’s Railroad Street warehouse, where dozens of barrels patiently age the beloved spirit. In this wood-scented adult candy land, Fairbrother pours a sample of a bourbon made on contract for a Virginia seller. It clocks at 115 proof straight from the barrel, yet its nose is gentle, filled with caramel, toffee, vanilla and just a hint of golden leaf tobacco. On the mouth, it’s clean, slightly sweet, smooth with deeply rich layers ranging from syrup to ash.
Then its younger brother is tapped, the same bourbon only a few months younger. This one puts up a fight, from the moment it hits your nose with a barrage of burned wood, cigar smoke and the rich savoriness that’s comparable to a charcoal grilled burger. The taste is the same, and, in a final act of protest, it sets your throat on fire on the way down. Bourbon, ultimately, needs time and love to reach its peak, and, of course, it needs a barrel.
In the near future, Barrett will likely need more of them.
“We had a guy come in who tried our bourbon and just loved it, and he asked us if we wanted to distribute to Japan. We said sure, but didn’t know how to go about it, and he said he’d take care of everything and the next thing we knew there was a shipment flying out to Tokyo,” Barrett said. “I thought it must be expensive to fly a shipment, and he told me ‘Do you have any idea how much I sell it for over there?’ If I would’ve known that, I probably would have asked for more.”
Japan, as it turns out, loves bourbon. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Japan imported 11.9 million liters of whiskey from the United States in 2015, which equals out to 38 percent of the market. The United Kingdom had the largest share, at 17.6 million liters and 56.6 percent of the market.
Ultimately, Black Button’s business is good booze, good intentions and word of mouth. Those three have gotten them halfway around the world and into 13 states, and for Barrett, it’s simply a labor of love. Love for good spirits, love for New York and love for the people who make those two things what they are. From the farm to the bottle, his only hope is that that spirit is captured in his spirits.
“I want to make spirits dedicated to where we make them,” Barrett said. “And that’s western New York.”
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