Black Button Toasts to a Decade of Distilling

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at (585) 775-9692 or | May 18, 2022

Black Button, which turns 10 in June, is the first major distillery to operate in Rochester since Prohibition.

Black Button Distilling began with a bold decision by its founder, Jason Barrett.
In 2012 at the age of 24, Barrett stepped away from a promising career as a business consultant in Washington, D.C., and returned to Rochester, where his family has for a century operated a button factory, these days known as Victor-based Shantz Associates. He had attended numerous distilling schools across the country and was ready to pursue his dream of launching the first major distillery in Rochester since the end of Prohibition.
It wasn’t an easy decision. At the time, New York’s nascent craft spirits industry tallied 48 distilleries statewide, compared to the 204 that were in operation as of this past January.
“I think the local support is everything,” Barrett said, in a backroom of the distillery adorned with dozens of test bottles and accolades from around the nation. “Without the consumers asking for our products at stores and coming to our tasting room, I’d be a very lonely guy.”
Black Button will celebrate its 10th anniversary in June with the release of its longest-aged bourbon to date, a six-year-old offering that marks the distillery’s first release in 53-gallon barrels, the traditional size used in producing bourbon. Jimmy Russell, the revered master distiller for Wild Turkey, has famously said he thinks the sweet spot for aging bourbon is 6 to 12 years.
That six-year-old whiskey, the first round of which will be released in 100 commemorative decanters on June 2, marks a milestone for Black Button as the distillery shifts its focus to older and more distinct bourbons.
Already, Black Button is done distilling bourbon that will be released in the 2020s. Every new batch that runs through the still pipes and is pumped into barrels will be bottled some time in the 2030s. 
“Just this week actually, we finally cleared our pre-tanks of any whiskey that had two years in it, and so now every drop of Black Button bourbon has a minimum of three years, but the average is closer to four and a half,” Barrett said. “There’s a lot that happens in those additional couple summers to the complexity, and the sugars, and the sweetness…for all of the quality ingredients and care we put in, it’s hard to match a 10-year Kentucky bourbon with a one-year New York bourbon.”
In the time that bourbon has been quietly stewing in oak, much has changed in regards to New York’s standing as a center of distilling. New York now leads the nation in sheer number of distilleries, and they’re starting to gain prestige. For example, in 2021, Black Button’s single-barrel straight bourbon tied with Kentucky’s Casey Jones Distilling for Best in Class bourbon whiskey. 
“That really ruffled some feathers down in Kentucky, that a New York distillery could walk home with the gold,” Barrett said. 
For those involved in the local distilling world, Black Button’s success is just one indication that the New York spirits industry is poised for greatness. 
Brian Facquet chairs the New York State Distillers Guild and is the founder of Do Good Spirits in Roscoe. As he sees it, the number of distilleries in the state coupled with the increasing skill of the state’s distillers is helping New York stand as a leader in the world of liquor. Before Prohibition, New York had a thriving distilling industry and was a prolific producer of rye whiskey.
“It’s just like anything else, with age comes skill and spirits maturing, it’s quite beautiful,” Facquet said. “And as the industry is maturing, you have people coming from other states bringing their skills. Nowadays, we have folks with Kentucky pedigrees that have decided to come to New York and make whiskey.”
Facquet says the only thing holding back New York’s distilling industry is bureaucratic red tape. He’s a proponent of a bipartisan bill currently in the New York State legislature which would grant distilleries “parity” with the state’s wine, beer, and cider industries. 
In layman’s terms, the law would allow all distilleries to do tasting and sell directly to consumers from the distillery. 
“Once we get some of that legislation out of the way, I think the floodgates will really open,” Facquet said. 
Black Button’s bourbons are now aging longer, adding complexity to the increasingly prestigious juice.

At Black Button, Barrett is preparing for growth. After a particularly bad couple of years at the distillery’s farm near Bristol, thanks in part to blight brought on by gypsy moths, Black Button’s team is again planting everything from Juniper trees for gin botanicals to white oak trees for barrels. Its hope is to create spirits using raw materials entirely from New York, save for the bottles, in years to come.
Meanwhile, the distillery is working on a new production facility. While Barrett was secretive about where exactly it will be, he said it will be around four times the size of the current space, and will be in the city of Rochester. 
“We are committed to staying in the city and offering a great experience for people to see locally-made spirits,” Barrett said.