Jason Barrett – Black Button Distilling

“Farm distiller licensees are reminded that, pursuant to ABCL Section 61(2- c)(a)(ii), they may only produce liquor made “primarily” from farm and farm products (such as fruits, vegetables, grain and grain products, honey, maple sap or other agricultural products) grown or produced in New York state. The Authority interprets “primarily” to mean at least 75% by volume. This standard applies to each product manufactured by the farm distiller, and not the farm distiller’s overall use of ingredients in all of its liquor. As part of the licensee’s obligation under ABCL Section 103(7) to maintain adequate books and records, farm distillers should maintain documentation to demonstrate that any liquor produced by the licensee conforms to this standard.”

That’s only one excerpt from the State of New York Liquor Authority in a 2014 letter addressed to all farm distillers, including Black Button Distilling in Rochester. We had the pleasure of sitting down with Jason Barrett, founder of Black Button, and getting an inside look at what it means (and what it takes) to be a NYS Farm Distillery, and how they’ve gone above and beyond New York State’s guidelines for producing spirits as a farm distiller.

The ride to Rochester is always a nice one, and it’s fairly quick too. We usually get into the city right around the hour mark, so it’s a great cruise to listen to podcasts or an album. Our visit to Black Button was the first question and answer sit down session we’d done; which, even for us, was an interesting choice considering that beer is our usual beverage and Buffalo is our primary location: yet we traveled to Rochester to discuss booze. It was more than just talking about the distillation of spirits though, and the Buffalo connection would reveal itself as we continued our visit with Jason.

With nearly all of the breweries, distilleries, and coffee shops around; their names always have meaning behind them. With Black Button Distilling, there’s an especially interesting personal story behind their brand. Since 1922 Jason’s family has been in the button making business; and for four generations those buttons have fastened suits worn by individuals of varying status around the world. On his website it states “From a young age I went to work in my grandfather’s factory, but it was clear I was meant for a different path.” Until now, we didn’t know why it was so clear that Jason wasn’t cut out for the button business. You see, buttons grace many different types of attire and come in countless colors; and Jason is colorblind. Through the years his family said that if Jason ever took over the family business, they’d only be able to make black buttons. Of course, this was all in good fun; and without being the butt of the family joke, Jason would have never come to naming his business after the punchline.

Black Button got its start in the Flower (Flour) City, but where have you seen it in the Buffalo area? You’ve probably seen it in your local liquor store, and if you have, that means that somebody from Black Button Distilling put it there themselves since they self distribute. Stores usually carry their Citrus Forward Gin, NYS Bourbon, 20-Plate Vodka, and their Apple Pie Moonshine. You can actually get a flight of all of these and more when you visit the tasting room. Another place you can catch them is at their separate tasting room downtown on Swan Street. For me, coming from the Northtowns, I take the 190 headed south and get off at Elm. Then instead of taking a left toward the ballpark, SATO Brewpub, or the marina; I hang a right and I’m there. When deciding what is or isn’t local during the podcast, our guidelines aren’t strict. Anything that’s had an impact on us or our community in the past or present becomes a part of our history. With Black Button, they went from local in our hearts to being local in our community, and it’s great to have them as part of a growing Buffalo. When Jason and the folks at the distillery had to choose a location for their tasting room away from Rochester, they had one shot since the New York State Liquor Authority only allows for one satellite tasting room for distilleries. Jason gave us his best explanation of the rules set by the liquor authority followed by, “if you were looking for some logic as to why it is that way, I haven’t been able to get a straight answer.”

When planning our visit to Rochester, it was important to us that we made it in time for the Lilac Festival. Rochester hosts the festival each year in Highland Park, a park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted who played a massive role in the design of Central Park in New York City in addition to Delaware Park here in Buffalo. The collection of lilacs in Highland Park was first started in 1892 and has been a highlight of the city ever since. The lilac has even begun to play a role in local craft creations with companies like Blue Toad releasing their Lilac Cider and Black Button with their Lilac Gin. Four years ago Jason had a vision of having a gin for each season, and being a distillery in the Flower City, the story writes itself: the spring gin had to feature lilacs. While the lilacs are already sourced right from the city of Rochester, along with the hibiscus, lavender, and rose petals, an especially exciting advancement in the quest toward completely “locally grown” farm spirits has been made for next years’ lilac gin. Jason has been in touch with the folks that plan the Lilac Festival, and future releases could feature lilacs directly from Highland Park.

Speaking of farm distilling advancements and the NYSLA’s guidelines for farm distilleries, you can see in the first paragraph of this post that 75% of ingredients grown in New York State is the magic number for farm distillers. Black Button is crafting their spirits with 95% of their ingredients grown locally. Still, that doesn’t seem to be enough for Jason. Not only will future lilacs be sourced straight from Highland Park for their gin, but all of their botanicals for their gin will soon be grown on their very own Black Button Farm. While Edgewood Farms grows the grain that Black Button uses in their spirits, having his own farm gives Jason the opportunity to make “farm distilling” exactly that. You could be thinking exactly what I was when I first heard about the farm; they’re shooting for 100% NYS grown spirits, and you’re on the right track. But with the addition of Black Button Farm, we can actually expect 100%* NYS grown. Where does the asterisk come in? When the New York State ingredient bourbon is aged in barrels from New York State, grown on the Black Button Farm to be exact. The Oak existed on the property already, and the wood is being aged right now as I type this up.

Before brewing and distilling became the norm again only a few years ago, strict, pre-prohibition guidelines were the standard for wineries, distilleries, and breweries in New York. Although wineries got a head start in the relaxation of laws in 1976 with the creation of the Farm Winery Act, it wasn’t until 2007 when the Farm Distillery Act came to be, making it possible for spirits crafted in New York State to go from dream to reality. More recently in 2014, Governor Andrew Cuomo Signed the Craft New York Act which loosened the tight grip that state government had on tastings, tasting rooms, and production caps for smaller operations. In 2016, when again, more legislation was signed in favor of increased ease for craft beverages, the Governor stated, “We’ve worked hard to cut red tape, lower costs and roll back burdensome regulations to help New York’s craft beverage industry thrive and create jobs, as well as some of the best beer, wine, cider and distilled spirits in the world.” So now, with decreased regulations and increased “Farm to Glass” operations; we can look at the future of craft beverages in New York State with our glasses half full.

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