ROCHESTER BUSINESS JOURNAL
By: Thomas Adams January 24, 2014
Monroe County’s first grain-to-glass distillery opens for daily business Saturday, with plans to occasionally mix liquor with beer from Rohrbach Brewing Co. to draw customers for both.
Work began nine months ago to transform empty space on Railroad Street into Black Button Distilling, after its president and head distiller, Jason Barrett, reached a lease agreement with building owner John Urlaub, who founded Rohrbach in 1991 and moved his brewery to Railroad Street near the Rochester Public Market in 2008.
“I’m proud of the fact that they’re the first distillery in Rochester,” Urlaub said. “I’m a huge fan of the city and of this market area. What Black Button brings to the neighborhood is really fantastic.”
Rohrbach is moving into a new venture as well: selling beer in cans. A canning line for 16-ounce containers soon will be added to the brewery. The line was scheduled to be delivered this week.
“We’re going to move some of our keg-cleaning operations to the far end of the building, and the canning line is going to go there,” Urlaub said. “I’m thinking it’s a two- or three-month process to get them on the shelves.”
Rohrbach employs 15 people at its brewery, up from three when it moved to Railroad Street six years ago. It has a brew pub on Buffalo Road in Gates.
Rohrbach has benefited, Urlaub said, from the Genesee Brewing Co. restaurant, tasting room and museum opened in September 2012.
“People go back and forth between the two places,” he said. “There are enough places now to bring people that are enthusiastic about craft beer into the city. Fortunately, we’re usually a stop.”
Rohrbach craft beers were brewed at the Gates location before the Railroad Street site opened. Urlaub bought the Railroad Street building for $375,000 in 2007, Monroe County property records show. The 37,221-square-foot warehouse was built in 1920.
“This neighborhood has changed immensely, just in six years,” Urlaub said. “The (public) market has always been popular, but there are new businesses. Having Jason and Black Button Distilling next door is really kind of a game-changer, too. It certainly is for us, because it helps us to utilize this building better.”
Black Button opened for one day, on Dec. 20, to sell 700 bottles of wheat vodka.
“We had a line out the door,” Barrett said. “People were waiting in the rain. We sold 700 bottles in about six hours.
“We wanted to launch before Christmas because we knew a lot of people would take the product with them to holiday parties and have it on their Christmas tables when they were getting ready for holiday parties. We heard from lots of people who had tried it at a friend’s or relative’s or neighbor’s Christmas party and were looking to buy some.”
Barrett has made a second batch of vodka and was finishing a batch of gin last weekend. Black Button Moonshine, an unaged corn whiskey, was distilled this week.
“We’ve been plugging along, day after day,” he said. “The goal is to have all three available.”
Barrett, a former business consultant at Paychex Inc., has invested $1 million to create the distillery. He has employed four people full-time since October and has 15 part-time bartenders.
“Saturdays are going to be the really busy day,” he said. “We’re also going to be doing tastings at liquor stores and restaurants on Friday and Saturday nights. We have a lot of people that have a normal 9-to-5 job but are interested in craft spirits and have said they want to help us out.”
The distillery tasting room initially will be open every day but Mondays, with hours potentially reduced or eliminated depending on traffic, Barrett said. Products should be available in selected liquor stores, bars and restaurants in February.
“What keeps me up at night are the two extremes,” Barrett said. “What happens if we have thousands of people and a crowd control problem, and what happens if nobody shows up? Reality is always somewhere in the middle.”
Rohrbach’s tasting room opened two years ago, Urlaub said.
“We used to do tastings in the brewery, but now we’re actually operating on Saturdays, so we couldn’t bring people in there and do a nice tasting,” he said. “Now we have this dedicated space, which has been great for us.
“We have a little more space that we might be expanding into. We’re hoping at some point to do some food down here, too. It’s just something in the planning stages right now.”
Barrett and Urlaub have partnered on what Barrett calls a double-date night March 14.
“It just happens to be a Friday, so people can go on a date with their significant other and another couple, and take a brewery tour, take a distillery tour, have a little food,” Barrett said.
The distillery will produce its first bourbon soon. When the fermenting is done, the barrels will be moved to the brewery, where Urlaub will use them to store porter or scotch ale. After that, the barrels will be returned to the distillery to hold beer-barrel-aged bourbon.
“We can get three uses out of them, and then we’ll have to figure out something else to do with them,” Barrett said.
The Rohrbach brewery is open Tuesday through Saturday.
“To be able to park and go to the market and pop down to Black Button and over to Rohrbach’s, there’s a tremendous amount of synergies,” Urlaub said.
“There’s not going to be too many people that walk through our door that don’t go next door.”