With a deep commitment to local sourcing and a focus on quality, Black Button Distilling has established itself as a staple of the New York spirits scene. As the Director of Marketing, Greg Stacy is at the forefront of communicating the distillery’s ethos and its dedication to the craft. Black Button takes pride in its New York State Farm Distillery status, exemplifying the rich agricultural heritage of the region by sourcing over 90% of its grains locally.
In this interview, Greg delves into the intricacies of distilling bourbon and cream liqueur, the strategic decision to home in on the New York market, and the advantages of self-distribution. He also sheds light on the distillery’s kosher certification journey, a testament to their commitment to quality and inclusivity. Black Button Distilling, not only distills spirits but also embodies the spirit of New York itself.
OU Kosher: Greg, could you start by telling us about your role and the primary business of your company?
Greg Stacy: I’m Greg Stacy, the Director of Marketing at Black Button Distilling. We primarily distill bourbon and cream liqueur, but we also produce gins and vodkas.
OU Kosher: What’s the current focus at Black Button Distilling?
Greg Stacy: Currently, our focus is on bourbon, which is now coming of age. This allows us to distribute our bourbon more broadly as it has taken time to age.
OU Kosher: Can you tell us about the New York State Farm Distillery license and what that means for your production?
Greg Stacy: As a New York State Farm Distillery, we’re required to use a certain percentage of New York State-grown grains. While the requirement is around 70%, we use about 90%, and nearly all of that comes from within 50 miles of our distillery.
OU Kosher: Are there any products you produce that require ingredients not grown in New York State?
Greg Stacy: Yes, for our citrus-forward gin, we must source citrus like oranges and lemons from outside the state, as they cannot be grown in New York.
OU Kosher: How widely is your product distributed?
Greg Stacy: We distribute almost entirely within New York State, although we self-distribute, which is unique. We initially expanded to New Jersey, Florida, Texas, but decided to refocus on the opportunities within New York, particularly Eastern and downstate New York, to strengthen our local heritage and relationships.
OU Kosher: How does local sourcing fit into Black Button Distilling’s mission?
Greg Stacy: Local sourcing is central to our mission, which has always been a focus for Jason, our founder who is also on the Farm Bureau. Supporting New York State agriculture is essential for us, and it ties into the larger mission of promoting local businesses and the slow food movement. We source our corn, barley, wheat, and dairy from New York State businesses, which is a crucial part of our business ethic and mission.
OU Kosher: Your core market is New York. Are there plans to expand beyond that?
Greg Stacy: Not in the immediate future. We recently opened a new distillery and are focusing on growth. We have a significant bulk business alongside our branded products. Given the saturation in the craft beverage market, we find our local message loses impact the further we move from home. There’s still ample opportunity within New York State, where we’re not yet saturated, especially in Rochester and Western New York.
OU Kosher: Can you expand on the benefits of self-distribution?
Greg Stacy: Self-distribution means we retain the full margin, without needing to pay a distributor. Out of state, this changes—you need a distributor, which cuts into the margin and dilutes the brand message. In-house, you get overshadowed by the distributor’s portfolio unless you’re willing to invest heavily in promotions and incentives.
OU Kosher: So, focusing on New York State is the strategy?
Greg Stacy: Exactly. Jason decided that investing in direct relationships within New York is more beneficial than trying to expand our distribution network wider.
OU Kosher: You mentioned ‘bulk’ earlier. What does that refer to?
Greg Stacy: ‘Bulk’ refers to our production of bulk vodka, bourbon, and other spirits, which can be for private labeling. We work with wholesalers and other companies, providing them with spirits under NDAs, so we can’t disclose their names. We also deal with kosher spirits, importing and advising on Brandy, Calvados, and similar products.
OU Kosher: Who initiated the move for kosher certification, and why choose OU?
Greg Stacy: [This part will be edited after the response to the kosher certification question, to ensure relevance to the OU Kosher certification context.]
OU Kosher: Regarding kosher certification, was that Jason’s initiative?
Greg Stacy: Yes, that was Jason’s decision. He realized we were already distilling to kosher standards and reached out to Rabbi Jenkins to verify our processes. Once confirmed, we saw it as a tremendous opportunity, especially in New York City, where there’s a significant kosher community.
OU Kosher: So reaching out to kosher markets was a strategic move?
Greg Stacy: Absolutely. Given our kosher-certified products, we’ve started engaging with kosher retailers and consumers directly. This includes leveraging connections with groups like the kosher cocktail enthusiasts on Facebook, despite our limitations in direct posting as Black Button.
OU Kosher: Can you elaborate on your bulk business?
Greg Stacy: Our bulk business involves producing spirits like vodka and bourbon for private labels. We maintain NDAs with these companies, so specific details remain confidential. Notably, we have access to kosher spirits internationally, which complements our local offerings.
OU Kosher: And the decision for OU certification?
Greg Stacy: That predates me, but it aligns with our values and community focus. The OU label is proudly displayed on our bottles, signifying our commitment to quality and kosher standards.
OU Kosher: What distinguishes Black Button products in terms of quality?
Greg Stacy: Our liqueurs, particularly our bourbon cream, are crafted with New York State dairy and small-batch bourbon. We’re dedicated to producing high-quality, non-GMO, and organic products where possible. The taste, as confirmed by customer feedback during in-store samplings, speaks to our commitment to quality.
OU Kosher: Tell us about the uniqueness of your bourbon.
Greg Stacy: We’ve trademarked what we call ‘Rochester style’ bourbon, which is distinct from Kentucky bourbon. Our process is influenced by New York’s terroir, including local grains and Finger Lakes water, contributing to a unique flavor profile. The climate in upstate New York, with its temperature fluctuations, is surprisingly conducive to bourbon aging, allowing more interaction between the spirit and the oak barrels. We’ve embraced this unique aspect to tell a compelling story about our brand and the quality of our products.
OU Kosher: Could you summarize what sets you apart from other distilleries?
Greg Stacy: Certainly. Our Rochester style whiskey is distinct to upstate New York, setting us apart from Kentucky’s legacy distilleries. It’s the combination of local terroir, locally-sourced ingredients, the natural aquifer from the Finger Lakes, and the limestone-rich soil, all contributing to a whiskey uniquely ours. The fluctuating climate of upstate New York also allows the whiskey to interact with the barrel more dynamically than in more stable climates.
OU Kosher: Apologies for the digression, but can your products be purchased online?
Greg Stacy: Yes, while we can’t ship directly, we facilitate online sales through a third-party distributor. Customers can visit our website, which redirects to our distributor’s platform, Bar Card, and they can ship to around 36 states where it’s legal.
OU Kosher: Has online sales been a significant part of your business?
Greg Stacy: E-commerce was notably high during the pandemic, but normalized store sales have seen a corresponding dip in online purchases. Brand recognition is a challenge outside of New York, especially compared to national brands. Nonetheless, we optimize our online presence by targeting specific times of the year, like Father’s Day and cider season, to boost sales of products like our bourbon cream, 4 grain bourbon, and empire apple liqueur. It’s a challenging market with lower returns on high investment.
OU Kosher: How’s the business going?
Greg Stacy: Business is thriving. We’ve diversified our revenue streams, taking a cue from breweries, wineries, and other distilleries.
OU Kosher: What can you tell us about your premises?
Greg Stacy: We have a strong presence in Rochester with a full tasting room that’s as large as our original distillery. It’s more spacious and located in a prime spot for hosting events.
OU Kosher: Are events a big part of your strategy?
Greg Stacy: Absolutely. With the fourth quarter underway, we’re seeing a seasonal influx of customers seeking indoor activities like Sunday brunch cocktails. This transition from summer has historically benefited our in-store sales.
OU Kosher: What about seasonal fluctuations?
Greg Stacy: Summer sales can be unpredictable due to weather and vacations, but we’re gearing up for a robust fourth quarter.
OU Kosher: Has the new location affected sales?
Greg Stacy: Definitely. Since moving to 1344 University Avenue in Rochester, our September sales have doubled from last year. The location is nestled between cultural and residential areas, providing excellent visibility and foot traffic.
OU Kosher: Can you describe the new location?
Greg Stacy: The distillery is housed in a historic pre-World War One factory, originally used to produce brass shells. We’ve even acquired some of these shells, identified by their markings as being made in our building, which adds to our location’s unique character. The space features high ceilings and large garage doors, allowing passersby to see inside. All our products are produced right there.
OU Kosher: And sustainability practices, particularly regarding waste?
Greg Stacy: [This portion will be edited after the response to the sustainability question to maintain relevance.]
OU Kosher: How important is water usage and sustainability in your production?
Greg Stacy: Sustainability is crucial for us. Efficient water usage ensures we maximize ingredient extraction during distillation, which is essential for producing clean bourbon. We treat our water with minimal waste, as most of it is incorporated into our bourbon and bourbon cream. We’re incentivized to maintain these standards, not just for billing reasons, but because we believe in sustainability.
OU Kosher: What about the grains used in distillation?
Greg Stacy: We like to say we ‘rent’ the grains. After distillation, we return them to the farmers who supplied us, and they’re used as cattle feed. This practice is in line with industry standards and avoids unnecessary waste or labeling complications with the FDA.
OU Kosher: Are there new products or innovations we should look out for?
Greg Stacy: Innovation is constant at Black Button. We’re exploring new liqueurs and potentially partnering to create flavors like orange cream or cookies and cream. Our experimental series in the tasting room is an incubator for new bourbons that could hit the market if successful, such as barrel stave-aged or smoked corn bourbon. We’re also experimenting with Sonic barrel aging, like our Beethoven barrel-aged bourbon from last year, where music agitates the barrel, enhancing the aging process.
OU Kosher: How do you incorporate these innovations into your marketing?
Greg Stacy: Our collaborations, such as with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, include unique hang tags on limited release bottles. These special editions are promoted during concerts, which adds an experiential element to our marketing. The positive reception to these initiatives, even if initially met with skepticism, proves the uniqueness and appeal of our approach.
OU Kosher: Does your marketing material feature your kosher certification?
Greg Stacy: Yes, we highlight our kosher certification as much as possible, including on our website and products. We advertise during the holidays, particularly in the Jewish Journal in Buffalo, given our strong presence there. We’re always seeking ways to discuss our kosher offerings where relevant.
OU Kosher: How does this align with your sales strategy?
Greg Stacy: Our sales team emphasizes this in kosher-focused markets. In New York City, for example, our efforts are more intensive compared to the more rural Finger Lakes region.
OU Kosher: Are there any publications you’re considering for advertising?
Greg Stacy: We’re featured in Jewish Action, which reaches around 60,000 households. It’s an affluent audience and a cost-effective channel. We’re also exploring how to integrate Hanukkah into our advertising, ensuring it resonates with the community’s customs and celebrations.
OU Kosher: What about broader marketing strategies?
Greg Stacy: Our messaging is tailored to holiday entertaining. For example, “home for the holidays” targets the Christian market, but we’re also mindful to craft language that speaks to Jewish festivities like Hanukkah. We’re not just about bar culture; we focus on dinners, pairings, and culinary experiences, especially with our bourbon cream.
OU Kosher: Are there any new products in development?
Greg Stacy: We’re continually innovating, currently experimenting with new liqueurs. We have a Cherry Wood finished bourbon slated for a January release as part of our experimental series, which may scale up if successful.
OU Kosher: In closing, what would you like to convey?
Greg Stacy: Our message is one of positive growth. We encourage the ethos of “think New York, drink New York,” supporting local industries. It’s about community upliftment—believing that a rising tide lifts all boats, especially in upstate New York, where we’re keen to showcase our success and collaborative spirit.https://blackbuttondistilling.com/