It was only six years ago that Jason Barrett was the “numbers guy” at an accounting firm in Washington, D.C.
He was doing the checks and balances, but his home-brewing hobby landed him as the representative for some alcohol industry clients.
After enough time helping others’ brewing/distilling businesses, Barrett couldn’t help but want to start his own.
Then began the events that would lead to the creation of Rochester, N.Y. business Black Button Distilling.
“One of my clients was Catochin Creek Distilling. They loved what they did every day. I had a tinge of jealousy and through this experience I now understood the business and production,” he said.
Barrett’s initial interest in home brewing led him to learn more about the alcohol industry. He translated that knowledge to spirits and discovered a newfound passion for making Bourbon. “And it just so happened the laws in New York were also being re-written to make craft distilling more cost-effective.”
The cost to get a license to distill went from $60,000 to $1,500 a year, allowing Barrett to open a business that just a few years ago would have been impossible. The universe had spoken.
“The state realized if they lowered the introductory license, more money could be made by taxing every bottle,” he said.
“So, I quit my job, sold my house and moved back to Rochester. I had started home brewing in college due to an economic need. Distilling was going to be a way to make a living and love what I was doing.”
He had always liked tinkering, and it seemed like the ideal job for Barrett.
“My family had always been involved in button manufacturing, hence the name of the business,” he said. “I wanted to make something tangible with my hands. Coding and apps seem like the way of the future, but I like getting my hands dirty. I’m more tactile.”
On December 21, 2013, Black Button Distilling opened its doors for one day and sold over 700 bottles of vodka; the only spirit available at the time. In January 2014, the Rochester location was open permanently and will celebrate their 5 year anniversary shortly.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned since then is it’s the people who work here who make this company great. You can have a great product and idea, but it’s nothing without the blood, sweat and tears of those who work with you,” he said. “We have 88 people working right now, and we truly couldn’t do this without them.”
Black Button Distilling has grown dramatically. They have gone from three products to 13 and have increased distribution throughout New York State plus 11 others and Japan.
“We are on pace to make 250,000 bottles in 2019. We started as a two-man crew, and this has turned into a monstrosity, in all the best ways,” Barrett said.
“We have seen industry changes too. We were the 21st distillery to start in the state, and there are now 100. There’s been huge growth in the industry, and things are more competitive.”
But a major differentiator is how Black Button Distilling has embraced supporting local farmers. Black Button Distilling is registered as a “Farm Distillery” which means they purchase all ingredients used in the process from local, New York State farms. Over 90% of the ingredients used by Black Button Distilling comes from New York, allowing them to be accredited as the first distillery in the New York State Grown and Certified Program.
“We literally shake the hands of farmers who grow the crops we use for our spirts,” said Barrett. “They are some of my favourite people. They bring things to market every year, and we learn so much from them. It’s a pleasure knowing and working with them.”
From a business standpoint, it is also a sustainable model and opens up so many avenues. With a farm distillery license, Black Button Distilling is able to have a tasting room, sell at farmer’s markets and county fairs and directly to liquor stores. Rochester and Western New York have embraced them like he never imagined, and they now have another tasting room in Buffalo.
“We expected we’d be bored, with 20-to-30 people in on a Saturday for the day. We see 50-to-60 an hour, and our tours run back-to-back,” he said.
Black Button Distilling expects revenue to come in just shy of $4-million, and that’d be 65 percent growth from last year.
“The company has doubled in size every 14-18 months, and we now have 88 employees, double what we had last year,” he said. “We have four buildings in Rochester, one in Buffalo, and rent 27,000 square feet.”
Black Button Distilling was also named to the Inc. 5,000 list. It ranks as one of the fastest-growing private companies in America.
“We were named the second-fastest growing craft distillery in the nation. We were also the 2020th fastest-growing company of any kind,” he said.
“To see that kind of hard work rewarded is amazing, and to be able to take that victory lap is something special.”
For the future, Barrett just hopes Black Button Distilling keeps growing and diversifying.
“We are trying to have more whiskey, and we make as much as we can. Our current growth rate is such that by the time we get new facilities in, it’s time to grow again,” he said.
“We are always wishing we had more space or capacity, and that’s a very good thing. We are keeping busy and doing something we love. You cannot ask for anything more.”
“I hope you will try our small batch, grain to glass spirits and join me in raising a glass and Live Large in Small Batches.”
By Jordan Parker