Black Button Distilling and the chase for craft perfection

Jason Barrett’s family started making men’s suit buttons in Rochester four generations ago. Since 1922 these buttons have been sewn on suits worn by presidents, popes, kings and businessmen all over the world. As a youngster, Barrett was privy to a work ethic that takes most people their whole lives to embrace. Work hard, work with your hands and create quality products.

And while Jason took a different path, the lessons and their meaning stick with him still. As the founder, president and master distiller for Black Button Distilling—the legacy he forged to create on his own—Jason pays homage to the the world his grandfather knew—one where real mean worked hard and drank the real thing, i.e., real pot distilled whiskey.

His path to craft spirit glory started in 2012, where at the age of 24 he opened Black Button’s tasting room and retail store in Rochester, New York. Spirit tastings and craft cocktails. Tours. Public and private events. With Black Button, he delivered a world-class operation distilled from New York area grains, and aged, bottled, labeled and hand-numbered locally.

And if you are looking for a little craft spirit irony—Black Button is the first grain-to-glass distillery in Rochester since Prohibition. The journey, which includes myriad awards, honors and accolades, has been the stuff of legend.

We sat down with Barrett, and Director of Marketing Carrie Riby, to get an inside look into the magic that is Black Button Distilling.

What are some of the adjustments you made with/to your business model surrounding the recent state of events?

From the time COVID-19 hit, we transitioned from liquor to hand sanitizer production in less than 48 hours. This in turn created a domino effect of other changes. For example, our tasting room expanded our product offerings from just spirits, to cocktail kits and virtual cocktail classes/events. We started offering curbside pickup and door-to-door delivery.

A good portion of our sales force now focuses on hospitals and critical facilities versus just retailers. In addition, we have expanded our e-commerce sales options, which now allows us to ship product to more than 38 US states.

What kind of conversations are you having with your customers?

We have always been in and part of the community, but with COVID, we have more time than ever to consider the community first. We all live here. How do we keep our friends and family safe? After taking care of the community, we ensure that our employees have a job. It may not be the same job they had in the tasting room, but everyone knows they are working for all the right reasons. The irony is that when customers see you taking care of the community and your employees, they rally around and take care of you.

Craft distilleries and breweries need to be curious when it comes to marketing. What worked five months ago will most likely not work now. Trial and error are the key to knowing if something is working.

What role should a brand play in being a leader in a distressed market?

Do the right thing. We live in a small viral world, and customers know when you are only thinking about yourself. Be honest and upfront about why certain products are not currently available because you had to focus on making hand sanitizer. They get it.

What is the best piece of advice you can offer to other brands in how to deal with the unthinkable like this?

Here are two pieces of advice:

No. 1 — Trust your instincts. You know your targets and markets better than anyone else. The numbers suggested in the early days that everyone would be hunkering down with a well-stocked liquor cabinet. We later learned that they did, they were just not venturing into the craft arena.

No. 2 — Hire people who care. Our Black Button employees are family and, in the end, they were the reason we were able to bring hand sanitizer to market so quickly. The “can do” spirit is alive and well at Black Button and employees were willing to do whatever had to be done to make the hand sanitizer happen.

Give us a snapshot of today’s craft spirits market from your perspective.

According to the Distilled Spirits Council, only 43% of craft distilleries expect to survive at the end of this pandemic. This is scary, but at the same time, it forces us to rethink our current sales model. Things will not be going back to the way it was anytime soon.

What is likely to happen next?

Consumer behaviors have shifted. In many cases, this will not change even after COVID. We believe e-commerce is going to get more active in the craft category. For example, Drizly alone grew over 400% over the last few months. Once people know they can buy spirts quickly and easily, they may not want to go back to their old habits.

What is your story from a brand perspective?

We are proud to say we are the first grain-to-glass craft distillery to open in Rochester, New York since prohibition. Founded in 2012, Black Button Distilling is a New York State-licensed farm distillery. We use over 90% New York State all-natural ingredients to make all our spirits.

From a young age, Jason worked alongside his grandfather in his family’s button factory. There, he learned that hard work, dedication and a commitment to quality are the principles of any good producer. These core values would later become the foundation of Black Button Distilling. We work exclusively with farmers who take great pride in what they harvest, and we never cut corners in the pursuit of making exceptional spirits.

Black Button Distilling is a family company and our products are handmade with quality ingredients—just like the hand sanitizer. We have learned from this pandemic that we are about more than just crafting high quality spirits—we offer lifesaving hand sanitizer. Jason’s grandfather would be proud.

This is no longer about creating a brand story; this is about keeping our consumers safe so that they will be here for us in the future.

Walk us through your branding strategy.

Our brand is like most: handcrafted, farm to table, quality ingredients offering unique products you cannot get anywhere else. Our spirits are award winning. We have global recognition being the second American to be inducted into the prestigious Gin Guild. (A highly respected, worldwide promoter of the gin category, the Gin Guild is supported by the four major gin distilling companies: Bacardi, Diageo, William Grant and Sons and Chivas Brothers.)

What is the biggest issue today related to the marketing/sales side of the business?

Our biggest issue is that there are many distilleries out there. How do we break through this clutter and differentiate ourselves? Couple this with a robust e-commerce community that is designed to support major brands and not the craft. Now, top that off with having to make a totally different product, hand sanitizer, for a different audience set. These are complex times for our industry indeed.

What is the secret to creating a branding story that consumers can buy in to?

This is no longer about creating a brand story; this is about keeping our consumers safe so that they will be here for us in the future.

What is the one thing every craft beer brand should be doing in the way of marketing?

Craft distilleries and breweries need to be curious when it comes to marketing. What worked five months ago will most likely not work now. Trial and error are the keys to knowing if something is working. If it does not work, ask why. And then start again.

These are uncertain times. There is no science to what we are doing. If you are to make one marketing investment, hire a good public relations consultant. The ability to announce a story quickly makes all the difference in this rapidly evolving marketplace.

What do you see as some of your biggest opportunities moving ahead?

E-commerce is growing fast in this category. Companies like Drizly, Instacart, Whiskey Lovers, Spirits 360, Mash and Grape, etc., offer ways to our promote products in seamless online environments.

What is the biggest item on your to-do list right now?

How do you balance hand sanitizer demand with our passion for making award-winning bourbon/whiskey, gin and bourbon cream? What does our future look like? Understanding this dynamic is key to our future.

Sitting down with …

Jason Barrett, Master Distiller, founder and president, Black Button Distilling

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Seeing a product go from concept to fruition, and then seeing consumers enjoy our creations.

What was the best advice you ever received?

The only real difference in business anymore is the people. Focus on having great people and the rest will take care of itself.

What is the best thing a customer ever said to you?

“Can I get a Black Button Old Fashioned?” I was at a bar not in branded gear, and it was the first time someone ordered our product by name without needing to be prompted.

What is your favorite brand story?

Ford Mustang. You really do feel a sense of freedom while driving that car. Just like a pony on the plains.

Story by Michael J. Pallerino—Michael is the editor of Craft Brand & Marketing magazine. Over the past 30-plus years, he has won numerous awards, including the “Jesse H. Neal Editorial Achievement Award,” recognized as the Pulitzer Prize for business-to-business magazines. He can be reached at