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On Tour: Black Button Distilling

On Tour: Black Button Distilling

It’s a sleepy Saturday morning. The leaves have fallen from the trees and there’s a nip in the air. Central New York is famous for its beer and its wineries but it’s a little too cold for that. The season change to winter means that all the cider has been put away. The only thing that will do is some harder liquor to warm the belly.

Distilled water is added to bring out the flavors during a Bourbon Flight at the Black Button Distilling in Rochester, NY on Saturday December 2, 2017. Photographs by Gina Gayle

Housed in a red brick building in Rochester’s North Marketview Heights area, Black Button Distillery is on hand to fill that need. Sharing its premises with a brewery, the distillery’s selection is complimented by the frost of this December morning.

One of Black Button’s signature cocktails was up first. As a farm-to-table distillery, Black Button prides itself on using local ingredients. To be classed as such, the distillers have to use at least 75 percent of their grains from local farms but 100 percent of the grains used in Black Button’s spirits are from the area surrounding Rochester.

Jars of corn, rye, wheat and malted barley sit in on a shelf in the tasting room of the Black Button Distilling with the distillery in the background. Photographed in Rochester, NY on Saturday December 2, 2017 by Gina Gayle

This also extends to their additional products, which is why their Bloody Mary was the obvious choice. The mix was a concoction of the distillery and is made with locally sourced ingredients. Black Button’s twist on the classic cocktail is to add a little of, you guessed it, its locally sourced homemade BBQ sauce. The result is an usually sweet but welcome beginning finished off with the patented kick of tabasco and a little added complexity thanks to that barbecue flavor.

Sufficiently woken up by the hair of the dog, the tour of the small but efficient facility showed where Black Button’s magic happened. Peggy Gilmartin guided us through the distilling process from fermentation to bottling, something that happens 1000 times a day.

The company was started by master distiller Jason Barrett. Barrett had picked up the alcohol production bug at college trying to make beer in his college dorm at SUNY Cortland. From his interest piqued in spirits and his background in accounting, he was able to see the gap in the market. With that, Jason sold his house, and invested in the distillery. It needed a name, though.

Jason Barrett is the youngest master distiller and owner of the Black Button Distilling is shown next to their 1,000th barrel at the distillery in Rochester, NY on Saturday December 2, 2017. Photographs by Gina Gayle

Barrett’s family had been upmarket button makers for generations but he couldn’t join the business because of his blue-green colorblindness. The subtle shade changes in the buttons were impossible to tell apart so the only buttons the youngest Barrett would be able to produce were black buttons. And the distillery was born.

Starting a distillery with whiskey is too difficult because of the aging process so Barrett started with vodka. Gilmartin pointed out the whiskey and vodka stills on the main floor of the distillery. Black Button’s 20-Plate Vodka is put through 20 still chambers across two stills to ensure its smoothness. And it is smooth. This perfectly crafted silver spirit slivers down the throat with a hint of aniseed sweetness and a very clean finish.

A finished bottle of Vodka sits on the bottle assembly line at the Black Button Distilling in Rochester, NY on Saturday December 2, 2017. Photographs by Gina Gayle

From vodka, Barrett naturally moved to gin, seeing as vodka is the basis for the botanical spirit. Black Button staff are not all that fond of the traditional juniper botanicals and instead opted for  a more citrus punch. Citrus Forward Gin works in the botanicals in vibrant fashion, smacking the palette and the nose with a bold orange zest aroma.

A grain common of the CNY area is corn. The next logical step was to make good old-fashioned moonshine. Would it be an American distillery without some? Instead of resting on their standard corn whiskey, Black Button experimented. The tinkering paid off, spawning their Apple Pie Moonshine. For those who don’t want to feel a sting in their throat but still want the warming stomach, this drink is the answer. A silky cider-like texture with crisp apple flavoring front to back goes down a little too easily. Be careful if you opt for this delicious sweet treat.

While the clear spirits got Black Button off the ground, Barrett was always a whiskey fan. Making his own had always been part of the plan but that required barrels. They came from the Adirondack Barrel Cooperage already compressed and charred. Now Barrett just needed to make some. That process began in 2014 and in October this year, Barrett put whiskey into Black Button’s 1000th barrel.

Their Rye Whiskey is one of their newest creations. Made with 95 percent of the grain (the other five is malted barley), the whiskey offers a more poignant nose than the clear spirits but is equally as drinkable. It’s nutty base from the charred barrels hits in the front and lingers in the finish. There is just enough sweetness to counterbalance the typical whiskey warmth. A splash of water really enhances it, removing some of the harshness and opening up the nutty aromas.

Peggy Gilmartin shows the char from inside of an actual barrel used at the Black Button Distilling in Rochester, NY on Saturday December 2, 2017. Photographs by Gina Gayle

Black Button’s Straight Bourbon took some time to arrive too. To be classed ‘straight,’ the whiskey needs to age in the barrel for at least two years. What comes out is a whiskey with character. A peppery nose is overtaken by a caramel opening on the palette to compliment the treacle like texture. A hint of nut travels through before a welcoming spicy finish that perfectly counteracts the effects of the weather.

Good things come to those who wait, as the old adage goes, and some extra waiting time was needed for the final whiskey of the day. The Port Finish, Barrel Strength, Single Barrel Straight Bourbon is as much a mouthful in the glass as its name suggests. Sitting in the port barrel for a year, the whiskey picks up the aroma without losing its whiskey essence. Still delectably smooth, the sweet port nose makes way for a thick textured clean opening before the bold spicy finish. The added complexity of the barrel flavoring packs a punch and is not for the faint hearted. Like the Rye, this whiskey really sparkles with a drop of water added, alleviating some of the bite and adding some sweetness throughout making it more drinkable.

Brand Ambassador, Brie Delaney, pours Gin for the Trifecta Tasting at the Black Button Distilling in Rochester, NY on Saturday December 2, 2017. Photographs by Gina Gayle

Barrett has completed his task and then some. The nip has not left the now afternoon air in Rochester, but my belly is sufficiently warmed and my mouth is still chewing on whatever charred nut it can still find in the remnants of the whiskey. Now that the harsh winter is creeping ever closer in the north east of the country, the fruits of Black Button’s collective labor offer a great way to chase warmth that won’t be coming back for a while.

Samantha Bonacci and Courtney Clark enjoy cocktails at the Black Button Distilling in Rochester, NY on Saturday December 2, 2017. Photographs by Gina Gayle

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