Jason Barrett—Lifting Spirits during a Social Prohibition

Higher Order

Truth Collective Truth CollectiveEpisode 3Apr 28, 2020

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Introduction: 

Welcome to Higher Order. We talk to creative people with ambitious ideas that are out to change the world. Today we are bottling up some noble ambition with Jason Barrett, founder and head distiller of Black Button Distilling. In these unprecedented times, Jason and his team are distilling more than just great spirits for your glass, they’re distilling hope for our community. Join us as we learn about how they went from being essential to our taste buds to being essential to our health and wellbeing and what they need from us to keep it up.

Josh Coon:  Jason, thank you so much for joining us.

Jason Barrett:  Thanks for having me, guys.

Devon Higby:  Great to have you on, Jason, especially during these trying times. We really appreciate you taking the time because I know you’re a busy, busy man. So let’s dive in. Can you give us, I think just to start off, it would be helpful if we could get a sense of the origin story of Black Button Distillery.

Jason Barrett:  Yeah. So about seven years ago, I was living down in DC, and I was an accountant. And I was home brewing beer on the weekends and thought I wanted to open a brewery. And then the first distillery in DC opened called Catoctin Creek, and became friends with them and I realized that what I loved about making beer, I could translate into making bourbon. And no one else was doing that here in Rochester, which is my hometown. So I decided to do the perfectly reasonable thing at 24 years old, quit my job, sold my house, and moved back home, bought a still, went to distilling school, became a master distiller, and opened Black Button on Railroad Street in January of 2013.

Devon Higby:  And we’re so glad you did. I am such a bourbon fan, and by the way, I used to live in DC so I know Catoctin Creek, and that’s not a bad place to start.

Jason Barrett:  Yeah. Well, so actually the other funny thing then, do you know DC Brau?

Devon Higby:  I do.

Jason Barrett:  So I was their accountant when they started, and that’s what really got the bug in my heart of I can do this. They’re great friends of mine still.

Devon Higby:  Good stuff. Yeah. Famous.

Josh Coon:  Yeah, they make good things.

Devon Higby:  Well, so real fast, what is the staff makeup look like at Black Button, and what was life like there pre-COVID?

Jason Barrett:  So Black Button has a tendency to reinvent itself about twice a year, only because we’re growing at rates that we never really imagined. So what was truly a one-man show seven years ago has now grown to about 28 full-time staff members and about 70 part-time staff members based all across New York. We do a lot of things in house. We do all our own liquor store tastings, we do all our own shipping, we make all the products on site, we do all our own accounting. We’re a very self reliant group and being that we’re basically doubling in size every year, that requires bringing on quite a few people to help manage all of that work.

Devon Higby:  Sounds like it’s a cool community though.

Jason Barrett:  It is. It’s a great group of people. We tend to do well with people that are very independent and work well in a group but are comfortable making decisions on their own. And then we give them quite a bit of latitude to run their part of the business. And then I just try to guide them as they work to be the best that they can be as we work together to support all our goals. And we work hard to have aligned goals. So the sales department and the production department actually have the same case goal for the year. Because obviously we have to make it and we have to sell it. They’ll win as a team and that makes them count on each other and work together to hit those goals.

Josh Coon:  So give us a little feel for what it was like pre-COVID. We’re going to talk a lot about the amazing shift that you’ve had over the last month, but just so our listeners kind of understand size of your business, size of your staff. Like we talked about the staff a little bit, but what was life like before insanity struck?

Jason Barrett:  It was probably already a little bit insane. We were in the midst of a nationwide rollout, so we spent most of 2019 preparing for the spring of 2020 in which Black Button would go beyond just being available in New York state to now being sold in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, DC, Florida, Texas, California, Colorado, and Michigan. And that’s a little bit of a change for us going from just New York to all of those all at once. And many people of course would say, “Well, why would you do it that way? Why wouldn’t you just do a slow and gradual rollout?” The answer was that in order to be fully successful, we needed to hire salespeople in each of those states that I just mentioned, and put together a sales infrastructure with an East Coast and a West Coast manager reporting to a VP of sales so that we could have all the depth in the team that we needed to truly be successful.

Jason Barrett:  So we decided to do it as a step function change in the business rather than a gradual business. And we were quite literally mid step when COVID hit, which on the benefit side we had a significant amount of liquor in our warehouses getting ready for that big national launch. So even though we’re not making liquor today, we don’t have any fear of running out anytime soon, and hopefully we have lots of work to get back to once COVID has subsided. The team at this point makes about a thousand bottles a day of vodka, gin, bourbon, whiskey. Across New York, we take that directly to liquor stores and bars. And then in each of those outlying states we would be working with a distributor to then work with retailers and then consumers. So it’s quite an interesting challenge.

Josh Coon:  So when did, kind of thinking back over the last, say, 60 days, because it’s crazy to think that all this has happened in such a short amount of time, but when did COVID really first start to come up to you as like, “This is going to be big, this is going to be something we need to be ready for”?

Jason Barrett:  When Governor Cuomo asked businesses to consider shutting down voluntarily, it was when it really… I mean I’d been watching the news before that and there were certainly concerns, but that was when it became clear this was going to change life as we know it. And with our fermenting tanks needing about a week, the yeast has to be tended every day in order to stay inside the heat and pH and sugar parameters that we’re looking to have as we guide that yeast into making our alcohol the way we want to. And so we were afraid that if we were ordered to stay at home, we might lose control of the fermenters and come back to something that we might not recognize.

Jason Barrett:  So we started that day putting the plant into a shutdown mode so that it could weather whatever storms came next. And that that was really when it became clear that this was going to be a problem. And that day, we had to furlough about 65 of the 70 part-timers and about 25 of the 28 full-timers. So as I remarked to my wife, “It took seven and a half years to build the business to this, and a single email to blow it all away.” And we were therefore very, very happy and fortunate that a few days later it became clear that we had the technology and the capacity to make hand sanitizer.

Jason Barrett:  By the next week, we had about half our staff back to work. And as of today, all our full time staff and a significant number of our part time staff are manning the bottling lines on two shifts six days a week. We have all our full-timers back to full pay, many of them in fact now working overtime. And in fact we’ve even had to do some hiring in order to fill some gaps on the team. So we’re very, very fortunate to have turned that all around in the last 40 days.

Devon Higby:  Yeah, that must’ve felt really good to get those people back, especially under the circumstances. So these are extraordinary times, right? And all businesses’ values are being tested as we try to recalibrate how we work, as we work remotely and we’re alone together and all of those good catch phrases. You touched a little bit earlier on how the business from a logistical and functional standpoint was positioned to pivot on a dime’s head, but can you talk a little bit about what values and the character of Black Button Distillery allowed it to be so nimble?

Jason Barrett:  I mean, I think it’s again that finding the right balance between having a team oriented approach as well as having a significant number of people who are very comfortable making the decisions independently and knowing that they will have the support that they need to have made those decisions and be successful. Because we had so many things going on that we couldn’t get people together to have to talk about of them each time. So we had to divide and conquer and basically have different people attack different parts of the problem and continue to kind of reorganize the staff as new, more information came in. So the accounting team and I were working on procuring the needed supplies. The production team worked on making the test batches and making sure they were comfortable with the new equipment and getting the first bottling lines set up. Our offsite team leader was instrumental in getting together the staffs and getting them trained so that people that are normally bartenders and consumer educators and delivery drivers could serve on the bottling line.

Jason Barrett:  Meanwhile, our marketing team was very focused on making sure that we were telling this story because we didn’t know where we were going to get the customers. We knew there was a need, but I don’t have contacts with hospitals and doctor’s offices. So we decided to use the press to collect and manage that need. Meanwhile, our sales reps were diligently calling all of the liquor stores and keeping revenue from liquor flowing in so that we would have the resources to be taking on all these expenses. And our tasting room has been serving as the frontline where we’re fulfilling anywhere from 200 to 300 orders a day of curbside delivery for both hand sanitizer and liquor, all with a staff of two because we can’t have more people in the building than that and maintain our social distancing. So again, as each group set about their specific task, knowing that it was so important to other people, but also knowing they had the freedom to do what they thought was best, it’s really worked out quite well.

Josh Coon:  Yeah, it’s an amazing testament to the team that you have that people were so flexible and so willing. So we’re talking about how you’re delivering both product lines, but before we go too much further there, tell us about the catalyst for hand sanitizer. When did you in this process be like, “I can make something else that’s going to be really valuable right now,” and what allowed you to make that leap? Like where’d the recipe come from? How did you come to that conclusion?

Jason Barrett:  So we’re involved in a number of the trade groups that represent distillers on both a state and national level. We think it’s very important to be well connected across our industry. And we heard through one of them that the FDA was asking distillers to do this, and the Food and Drug Administration actually provided the recipe and the instructions. And in some ways it’s very clear, there’s only four ingredients. This is how they want them mixed, this is how they want it packaged, this is how they want the label made and presented to the public so that it can be safe. And so once we got that guidance, and that guidance has been updated many times over this last month, we knew that we could. And then through some personal connections I was able to get in touch with Rochester Regional Health, and I was able to understand the need that they had. And that’s where the initial thought of, “Okay, we’ll make 5,000 bottles with supplies we have on hand.” And by the time we had done that, it had become clear we needed to do more.

Jason Barrett:  The main base of the ingredient is ethanol, which is again the alcohol that makes vodka and gin. We actually, in May every year we put out our seasonal gin, our Lilac Gin, and so the first 5,000 bottles of hand sanitizer were made from the alcohol that was originally destined to become Black Button Lilac Gin. Since then, we’ve had to bring in significant other supplies, but that’s where it all started.

Josh Coon:  And you’ve essentially repurposed existing equipment, right? Like it’s going in liquor bottles, it’s going down the same bottling line, all of those things that you were using to make spirits just two months ago.

Jason Barrett:  So there are surprising similarities and surprising differences. For instance, we have a very large automatic bottling line that right now we are not able to utilize because this is 160 proof, which is so corrosive on rubber and gaskets that that machine is not able to safely handle it. So some of our equipment can be utilized, and some of our equipment cannot. And so luckily that older equipment is what we’ve been using and repurposing to do all of this.

Josh Coon:  And so you’ve gone to making how many bottles of hand sanitizer right now?

Jason Barrett:  So we made 55,000 bottles last week, and our goal for this week is 70,000. And we’re hoping in a week or two to be at 80 or 90,000 as we bring on additional resources.

Devon Higby:  What has the response been to the quality of your hand sanitizer?

Jason Barrett:  Everything we’ve heard from the doctor’s offices and the hospitals that we’ve been working with is that they are very fond of it. Again, since we didn’t develop the recipe initially, this is the same recipe that the Food and Drug Administration suggests and the World Health Organization. So it’s already a tried and true process. We’re just following the instructions that they gave us.

Josh Coon:  And what’s the response been from the community? Not from necessarily a product standpoint but from a brand standpoint.

Jason Barrett:  Oh, so I mean there’s been just such a wonderful outpouring of support. We’ve had doctors send us pictures when they get their bottle. We’ve had so much appreciation shown to us. We actually set up a GoFundMe campaign that’s almost fully funded at this point. We’ll have $10,000 that we can use to donate hand sanitizer to the United Way. And we’ve made the decision that we’re actually going to match that amount significantly. And that’s also been well received. I mean, I think in general everyone was just so excited that something positive was in the news and it was happening in their backyard and that this band of brothers at this local company was coming together to do what the community needed during all of this chaos.

Josh Coon:  What’s it meant to you personally? I mean, you’ve built this brand over seven years. You’ve talked about the journey a little bit already. So for you personally, what’s it meant to be able to do this?

Jason Barrett:  I’m just so proud of our whole team, and I’m so excited that we’re able to get all of them back to work. These are people I spend most of my time with, most of my waking hours, and it was very painful that they were possibly not going to be able to take care of themselves. And that was, again, just really scary and painful. So the fact that we’ve been able to get them back to work and putting money in their pocket that will help them take care of their responsibilities and their needs at home, it’s just so gratifying that we were able to come together and do this as a community.

Josh Coon:  I know the community thanks you. We thank you. It’s an incredible achievement to have done this with your team. What’s next? What’s going to be next for Black Button? I mean, hopefully we’re out of this in another 60 or 90 days, and there’s some sense of normalcy that comes back. Will you continue to make hand sanitizer? And, of course, I’m sure you’ll go back to spirits, but tell us a little bit about kind of what might be next for you.

Jason Barrett:  At the moment, I guess, we are not entirely sure. So the facility can’t, it’s not really set up to make hand sanitizer and bourbon at the same time. If there continues to be a demand for hand sanitizer, I do feel a moral obligation to be providing it. But at the same time, if the rest of the industry can ramp up to a point where they are meeting the needs, we’re happy to go back to making liquor, which is what we’ve always worked for. If we’re going to have to do this in the long run, I think we would have to look at moving some of our equipment to another facility because this facility just wasn’t built to do all of this.

Devon Higby:  And this may be kind of a too prophetic question to really answer, but what’s your gut feeling as a small business owner about the future of small businesses when this is all done?

Jason Barrett:  Any time that there are major changes, I definitely think we’re going to see small businesses close. But from that, will there be opportunities for other small businesses to rally? I mean, I always think it’s interesting, Rochester in many ways, the 2008 recession didn’t hit us the same way it hit the rest of the country because we’d been seeing layoffs and stagnant growth from the big, from Kodak and Xerox and Bausch and Lomb for decades. But it meant Rochester had a very vibrant startup community because you had all these people that were well-educated, that had skills that were living in an affordable cost of living location, and they were re-imagining it. So as painful as I think it will be in the short term, I think will also breed new opportunities, that we’ll see a new generation of small businesses come together and prosper for the long run.

Josh Coon:  Jason, one of the things we think about a lot is noble ambition, which is this idea that ambition on its own when left unchecked can be a negative thing. But ambition when combined with nobility, with the desire to do more, to help people to do better for your community and for others can be a really powerful thing. Could you talk a little bit about how you’ve seen that play out in your work at Black Button?

Jason Barrett:  Yeah, I mean I think one wants to always get to the heart of what is the end goal, why do you want to do something? And that’s always been something I’ve spent a lot of time with. I don’t necessarily need Black Button to be the biggest company around. I want it to be the best. So I want us to have world-class products with world-class marketing with amazing people that are paid fairly, that love what they do and love working with their coworkers. And we often describe Black Button as a family, and taking care of that family and our extended families really is that primary goal. I think folks always want to take a look at why do they want to do something, what is that end goal? And make sure that it aligns with their core values and their life plan.

Jason Barrett:  And we have seen some other examples. Hickey Freeman up on North Clinton Avenue. We have been selling buttons to that soup maker since 1922. I have a picture in my office of my great grandfather standing at the Gates of Hickey Freeman holding a button case. And they’re hand-sewing masks for the hospitals right now, putting their people back to work, protecting those on the front lines, utilizing resources that are in our community to help our community. That’s been incredibly impressive. Imprintable Solutions, which is over on College Ave., which traditionally supplies the promotional products, they are like a t-shirt printer and an embroiderer, they have begun making masks out of t-shirt material. Again, getting their people back to work and protecting those in our community that are protecting us. And to see these other entrepreneurial organizations come together and really meet the need that the community has, has just been amazing.

Devon Higby:  That was an inspiring story. I mean, the more examples we have of humanity coming together and the fact that you’re sort of this carrying the torch generation after generation in your family through this town really speaks to, I think, Rochester as a city, I think humanity at large, especially during these trying times. Through COVID, people keep bringing up the flu pandemic of 1918 and the trials and tribulations that we as a country suffered together after 9/11, and you just mentioned the recession in 2008. I’ve listened to you on a couple of other podcasts, and as a self prescribed history nerd, how do you hope history looks back at this time?

Jason Barrett:  I think it will be interesting to see how the country comes together from this… Historically, tragedy does breed a renewed sense of community and people taking care of each other. I think it will be very interesting. We’ve obviously never faced anything like this. Most of us, we live in such a instant gratification world, where anything you want can be delivered the next day via Amazon. You can go into any grocery store and get whatever you need at any time. And to see that the just in time delivery world we live in works 99% of the time, but it doesn’t leave a lot of slack for when stuff goes wrong. I hope it will encourage people to give some thought about, do they want to be in that much debt? Do they need to do various things, or could they live a better life by maybe having a smaller house, taking care of themselves, having that cushion?

Jason Barrett:  And same with small businesses. I mean, again, do we all live too close to the edge and should we maybe take a step back and really think about what are the key things that matter? Because you can’t take the fancy car with you. You can’t take the McMansion with you. We’ve all only got so much time on this earth. And I think that events like this cause people to reflect on that. And does that make you want to be a better person, take care of that neighbor, help that friend, help that community member? Can we do more to help our fellow man rather than divide them? From a population standpoint, can we do that? But also can we elect leaders that foster that sense of community and helping and taking care of our fellow man over the prioritization of the economy and the 1%? And I think it will hopefully make people realize there’s more to life than money.

Josh Coon:  It’s an amazing sentiment that we hope more and more people hear. And so, Jason, we want to give people an opportunity to, you mentioned a GoFundMe page. Where can people help out? How can they get involved?

Jason Barrett:  So the best thing folks can do is go to our website, blackbuttondistilling.com. They can join our email list so we can keep them up to date on when products are available, both liquor or hand sanitizer, there’s links to the GoFundMe page, there’s answers to questions about the hand sanitizer. But also we’re encouraging people to shop at their locally owned liquor stores because all of the New York liquor stores are independently owned, and therefore they’re able to help two small businesses at once if they choose locally made products. And we’ve got quite a nice selection, there’s almost a hundred other craft distilleries across New York. Many people are familiar with all the good that the craft breweries do. And, again, I just hope that people choose to spend their dollars with small businesses, whether it be restaurants, breweries, distilleries. These are the lifeblood of our community, and they’re going to need help these months ahead.

Devon Higby:  Amen. As you said before, let’s hope that everybody continues to rally around each other and it isn’t just like an all clear and we go back to being in silos in our own worlds because to your point, I think that is the way that we get through this on the other side.

Jason Barrett:  I really appreciate you guys taking the time to make this with us. And after it’s all said and done, we’ll have to do a followup at the tasting room with drinks in our hands.

Devon Higby:  Oh, twist my arm.

Josh Coon:  Yep, sounds fantastic.

Jason Barrett:  We’d love to have you guys in.

Devon Higby:  It sounds amazing. We will work towards that hardcore.

Josh Coon:  Yes.

Jason Barrett:  Perfect.

Josh Coon:  All right. Thank you very much, sir. And thank you for-

Devon Higby:  Well, thank you for your time.

Josh Coon:  … everything you’re doing for the community.

Jason Barrett:  Happy to do our part. So stay well out there, guys.

Devon Higby:  Well, that’s our show. We hope you are inspired to pursue your noble ambition. Let’s chase it together. This has been a Truth Collective production.