America’s Best Craft Distilleries: Bourbon, Rye Whiskey, Gin, and More

Larry Olmsted • Senior Contributor • Forbes

The nation’s best craft and artisanal distilleries use better ingredients and longer ageing to create exceptional bourbons, ryes, other whiskies, gins, vodkas and specialty liqueurs.

I get pitches and samples from a lot of small and independent distilleries, which does not mean the same as craft producers, since a lot of startups simply buy a still, commodity ingredients, and start marketing so-so product in the hopes of making a big splash. In many cases, small distillery products cannot compete with the big brands, mainly because of the rush to market, no old inventory and way too short ageing times. Most of the color and most of the flavor in aged spirits comes from time spent in woods, and while there is no viable shortcut, many producers still try to get around Father Time.

However, once in a while I get to try a standout that joins the elite ranks of America’s Best Craft Distilleries, and this month my latest entrant is Rochester, New York-based Black Button Distilling, which wowed me with its products across several categories. While creating even one exceptional spirit can be a challenge, in this case the key to doing it multiple times turns out to be deceptively simple – source the best quality ingredients and take the time and care to make produce superior goods before releasing them.

Stories are also important in the spirits world, and Black Button has a great one. Founder Jason Barrett was working as small business consultant in Washington, DC post college, and had become fascinated with home brewing on the side, making batches of beer on weekends. When one of the first craft distilleries in the DC area opened it became a client, and he became entranced. “I fell in love with distilling. I learned that a lot of what I knew about home brewing translated to distilling, except that at the end you have whiskey!”

He soon drew up a business plan and returned to his hometown of Rochester, where his parents, grandparents and great grandparents had run a button factory since 1922, manufacturing “some of the finest men’s suit buttons available. For four generations these buttons have closed suits worn by Presidents, Popes, Kings, and businessmen the world over.” Barrett himself worked in the button business (which is still ongoing) before switching gears, and named Black Button Distilling in its honor. He was just 24 when he launched the company eight years ago.

The secret to his success is not multi-generational buttons, but rather multi-generational family farms in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, a major agricultural epicenter. Barrett decided to become one of the very first true grain to glass distillers, using exclusively locally sourced corn, rye and other grains.  

“Distilling is the same as baking, seafood, any kind of cooking – the higher the quality of the ingredients that go in, the higher quality product comes out. You cannot make good spirits with bad ingredients. I wanted to grow heritage grains, biodynamically and with no pesticides, and mill them on site. I went to these farms and told them what I wanted to do and that I would only need 3000 pounds the first year, and some of them laughed me out the door. But we ended up partnering with Edgewood Farms, a fifth-generation business, because they liked what I wanted to do, and now we use 5000 pounds a week.”

He takes purity and local sourcing so seriously that he is developing previously unheard of stave and barrel manufacturing in the area using New York white oak, sources fresh cream from a local dairy for one of his signature products, and bought his own 19-acre farm to plant thousands of juniper bushes for his gins. “It turns out this is a great climate for growing juniper, but no one was doing it commercially.” When I asked what ingredients used across the Black Button portfolio he could not get locally, Barrett told me simply “Valencia oranges – New York is not known for citrus fruits.”

The oranges go into gin, but if you love bourbon, buckle up, because that is the star here. “I started this to be a bourbon distillery, and that is still my favorite. I drink bourbon neat.”

All of the whiskies are a minimum of three years old, and that is definitely a minimum as they do not even bother tasting barrels before then. The most basic offerings average around 40 months, appreciably longer than many upstart distilleries bother with. I got to taste several Black Button whiskies, and all were very impressive, but my two favorites were the exceptional Double Barrel Straight Bourbon and the excellent flagship Four Grain Straight Bourbon. They use the same recipe (60% corn; 20% wheat; 11% malted barley; 9% rye) but the Double Barrel is aged in a mix of New York and Missouri (the industry norm) white oak, which makes it a little bit spicier. It is excellent, but was only made once, so when they run out it will all be gone (around $60).

The Four Grain is far and away the bestselling whiskey, accounting for about 95% of category sales, and it will impress any bourbon lover. The meticulously selected and grown breeds of grains are 100% from New York farms, and while Barrett has created sixteen cocktail recipes for consumers buying this bourbon, including classics like Old Fashioned and Manhattan, I loved it neat. It is extremely well balanced, with big oaky body while retaining sweet flavors of caramel and vanilla, good from the moment it hits your tongue through to the finish. Not surprisingly, it has won a lot of awards, gold and silver medals. This is top shelf stuff and fairly priced at around $45.

There are a staggering nine different whiskies in the Black Button portfolio, including the high rye style (95%) Empire Rye, which I have not gotten to taste but look forward to as a rye fan. Then there cask strength and single barrel versions of the four grain bourbon, a pre-Prohibition style bourbon in a stunning bottle (80% corn, 10% rye, 10% malted barley) made in very small quantities ($65), and the lightest, easiest drinking of them all, the American Straight Whiskey ($40). This is aged in used, rather than new, barrels for a mellower, less woody/oaky flavor.

The most unusual offering is a the “Irish Style Straight Whiskey Collaboration,” mixing Black Button’s whiskies with those from the Irish focused O’Begley Distillery, also in upstate New York. Finally, the priciest thing in the lineup is Single Barrel “Port” Finished Straight Bourbon in a fancy decanter-style bottle ($150). This is their signature Four Grain recipe, but after two years in new American white oak it goes into casks used by a “Port” distillery in upstate NY (I have to put quotes around “Port,” because it is a specific geographically indicated term that should only be used to refer to the products of northern Portugal, and like champagne, I consider any port made in this country to be fake). The next big thing will be a 6-year old Bottled-in-Bond bourbon release coming in spring 2021.

Whiskey is why Black Button exists, and you simply cannot go wrong, but they also happen to make excellent gin in five different styles. I tasted the signature Citrus Forward, which makes a great gin & tonic (especially if you run out of lime), and the classic dry gin, perfect for a martini. There are also seasonal limited-edition lilac and loganberry versions, and a barrel aged version of the citrus forward, ideal for craft cocktail mixology. They also make a couple of vodkas, the spirit for people who don’t appreciate spirits.

But shockingly, none of the whiskies or gins (or vodkas) are the bestselling item Black Button makes, and despite all of Barrett’s business savvy and planning, the big one was an accident. For a holiday season years ago, they blended their bourbon with local fresh cream to create a seasonal liqueur, and people absolutely loved it. Today, Black Button is best known for its Bespoke Bourbon Cream. It goes great with dessert or as an after dinner drink or even as an ingredient in cooking, and if you like Baileys and such, you will love this.

“For some folks drinking whiskey straight is too much, and this is very approachable. It is also priced close to other cream liqueurs, whereas our bourbons are considerably more expensive than most from Kentucky. We mixed young bourbon with fresh local cream and it is absolutely the best cream liqueurs out there.” He’s right and here’s a hint: It is excellent in coffee too.

Black Button products are worth seeking out, and they are currently on the shelves in retail stores in 18 states, mostly northeastern but also biggies like California, Texas and Florida. They are available for online purchase in close to 40. This includes their own web store and major e-tailers such as Caskers, Drizly and Mash & Grape.