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Craft distilleries make a comeback in upstate New York

As people increasingly stray from mass-produced products, demand is growing for locally produced food, wine and beer. In upstate New York this trend is spilling over into the field of craft distilleries, and the state is seeing a comeback of the small, artisan liquor operations of the pre-prohibition era.

From the Adirondacks, to the Hudson Valley, and down to New York City, dozens of micro-distilleries are popping up.

And, in Western New York, Jason Barrett is adding another operation to the ranks.

His company Black Button Distilling is staking a claim as the first craft-distillery to open in Rochester since the prohibition era saw operations close or go underground.

Barrett started out as a home-brewer in his college dorm. When he didn’t like the beer served at frat parties, he and his chemistry major roommate decided to make their own.

After a few years, he says, he figured out that craft distilling rather than brewing was the career for him.

And since then, he’s been to six different distilling schools across the U.S. to prefect his chosen trade.

“It is a learned process. You have to train your palette, you have to understand what the stuff’s going to look like and then we are messing with 300-600 gallons of product at a time, there’s just a lot of different things that you have to keep in mind as you’re doing that. You have to know what it has to look like throughout the process and then there is no real playbook in all of this. It’s such a new industry there isn’t a ‘how to start a micro-distillery’ course book.”

But he’s figuring it out ok on his own.

Local produce

Barrett says at Black Button, at least 75 percent of the ingredients they use will be locally sourced, and that’s what consumers want.

“People care about what they’re eating and they care about where it comes from. And we’ve obviously got the wineries and the breweries and the distilleries are the natural third leg of the alcohol triangle.”

Jacob Rakovan, bartender at local cocktail house The Daily Refresher says people are beginning to rediscover the more complex drinks of pre-prohibition times.

That translates to demand for more unique liquor choices, and a more personal experience.

“If you look in the literary world you find a rebirth in the handmade book, and it’s the same thing in the culinary and cocktail world, in that the care and attention being paid on the small scale is exactly because of the ability to do mass production of things. And you know, we’re tired of things with white, round, plastic edges.”

Barrett says it’s partly down to customer demand, but it’s also bars like the Daily Refresher that are behind the comeback of the craft distilleries.

“I would say the craft bartenders and the craft mixologists are probably some of the main drivers for the craft distilling industry because these are the guys that want to make drinks that are unique, that use local ingredients, that are absolutely the finest products you can get, and they’re the ones that are looking for those different kinds of whiskeys.”

Barrett says his operation will be turning out several unique styles of whiskey, bourbon, gin and vodka. And, he’s hoping the first batches will be ready by the end of the year.

Happy cows, happy farmers

But the business isn’t just about alcohol. Black Button is also cultivating relationships with local farmers.

Barrett says they’ll be sourcing wheat, rye and corn from a local family farm in the Southern Tier.

And, they’re trying to create a more efficient, integrated approach to the distilling process by sending their used grain straight back to the same family farm as free cattle feed.

“It’s very expensive to feed 400 head of cattle, they eat a lot of grain. And the stuff that we’re providing back, the agreement is that if the farmer’s willing to come and pick it up, we’re willing to give it to them because we would otherwise have to pay to dispose of it and we’re much happier having it going back into the system.”

The result is something Barrett calls ‘happy cows’.

“It does make happy cows because it’s still probably one quarter to a third of a percent alcohol in it and cows aren’t used to alcohol therefore any alcohol in the grain gives them a nice little buzz,” he says.

But with more large quantities of feed available after each batch of liquor is made, it’ll make for happy farmers too.

“It’s mostly just an economics thing because it’s not that different from what the cows are eating generally and here’s 1200 gallons of it for free, you just have to come and get it.”

Black Button Distilling is currently waiting for its license, and Barrett says he hopes to be firing up the stills by the end of September.

WXXI/Finger Lakes Reporter for the Innovation Trail