Living Large in Small Batches – Jason Barrett of Black Button Distilling

Jason Barrett, President of Black Button Distilling

Jason Barrett, the President of Black Button Distilling, grew his company’s revenue from $685,000 in 2014 to $2.2 million in 2017, a 221% increase, and to around $3 million in 2018.  

Black Button Distilling is a producer of handcrafted whiskey, vodka and citrus forward gin from locally grown products.  

In this interview with Eversprint‘s Malcolm Lui, Jason shares how he and his team accelerated their high value sales by:  

  • Building a team of full-time and part-time staff who are passionate about their spirits.  
  • Providing their end consumers and liquor stores with the products they want.  
  • Integrating work with life, as opposed to work-life balance.  

Computer generated transcript - Black Button Distilling Interview (transcribed by Sonix)

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Malcolm Lui: Welcome to the High Value Sales Show of I'm Malcolm Lui, the Managing Member of Eversprint, and today we're speaking with Jason Barrett, the President of Black Button Distilling, a producer of handcrafted whiskey, vodka and citrus forward gin from locally grown products. Welcome to the call Jason.

Jason Barrett: Thanks for having me Malcolm

Malcolm Lui: Jason, you grew your company's revenue from $685,000 in 2014 to $2.2 million in 2017, a 221% increase, and in 2018 you hit around $3 million. Before we talk about how you grew your company so fast, can you briefly share what your company does beyond my quick intro, and how your company differs from the competition?

Jason Barrett: Yes. So we are a New York State Farm distillery which is a legal designation that requires that we use 75 percent New York grown ingredients to produce whiskey vodka and gin. We actually choose to use 100 percent New York grown ingredients. We're very proud of the local agriculture we have here in western New York. We take in those raw ingredients whether they be corn wheat rye malted barley apple cider ultra pasteurized milk and then we convert them in our manufacturing facility into our products. We then retail those products in our two tasting rooms as well as wholesale them. We buy self distribution through our home state network of distributors across twelve states. And we also have an export partner in Japan. So we've been exporting our whiskey to Japan now for about 14 months

Malcolm Lui: Very cool now. Can you share with me the value the importance of having the New York State Farm label. I mean it. What does that do for you

Jason Barrett: So it's a twofold thing first and foremost. I mean western New York is my home. A place I'm incredibly proud of. And we have great agriculture here that many people are not aware of. So some of it's a point of pride where we want to be able to show off the great agricultural bounty that's available in Western Europe. But secondly it is a legal designation that allows us to do some of our business route to market. So the self distribution and the sales in the tasting room both of those are only available to us because we're a farm distillery. So if we were for instance making rum we would not be able to sample and sell it to the public in our tastes. So some of it is a legal difference.

Malcolm Lui: Right in having those tasting rooms as I imagine quite a good way to let people know about your product.

Jason Barrett: It's a great marketing opportunity. You wear where and great opportunity for people to come in and try some of our specialty products before committing to buying a bottle so they can really discover what they like as well as learn more about about how to use the products and cocktails

Malcolm Lui: So if I brought if I went to the store I went to the local grocery store or liquor store bought a bottle of whiskey vodka gin. How would it be different from yours

Jason Barrett: And there's a couple of you know a couple of differences. Probably the biggest one being our recipes. So we have a house style if you will our spirits tend to be very approachable and very soft. They don't have that medicinal bite that you get in the back of the throat from some of the mass produce spirits. And some of this is just due to the technology that we use to produce our spirits. Secondly for our gin we have a citrus forward recipe as well as a lilac recipe. So that's going to be very different from your traditional London dry gins that are very juniper forward are still has Juniper in it but again much more citrus or floral on the nose and on the tongue. So it really is a great addition to any home bar or or are out at a restaurant because it allows for a differentiation in your favorite cocktails

Malcolm Lui: Right. So the flavor in essence and smells a lot different

Jason Barrett: Yes. Yeah I always say that the the number one thing our consumers can expect from us is a spirit that adds to the conversation as a unique unique item. That's great in a glass or in a cocktail

Malcolm Lui: Right. Got it. So you grew a business quite rapidly 700000 into 2014 and then four years later you're hitting 3 million. Can you share what the biggest drivers were of your sales growth during that period.

Jason Barrett: So it's a mix of having great people great product being process focused and a little bit of luck never hurts either. But the first thing I would definitely credit you know we have a team of 88 employees of which 20 are full time and over 60 are part time and they do everything from bringing in the grains to you know selling the products at the liquor stores to helping me put the bottles and the labels on the products and without their support and help. I would just be a very lonely guy. We've also taken a concerted effort to try to understand what our customers really want. So how can we best serve the liquor stores. How can we best serve the consumers. How can we help them make money in their business and be a partner and really forge relationships. And then as I said a lot of hard work you know it's amazing what you can get done working seven days a week for four or five years

Malcolm Lui: Right now can you talk a little bit about the people. You said you have eight employees 60 of them are part time. The rest of full time. And you said as a key part to making everything work you elaborate on that

Jason Barrett: Yes. So. So we're always looking for a new black button team members a lot of our team members were at one point consumers you know they came in to try our products. We enjoyed the conversation that we had with them and they enjoyed what they saw here and we invited them to come be with us and some of them stay for a short time and some of them stay for years. But it's their hard work and their passion for our products and and what we're doing here that really help us. You know it almost ends up where that the love of black button and the mission ends up a little infectious.

Malcolm Lui: Right now that the folks who hire you. Do you hire them for specific skills or you train them up on what needs to be done.

Jason Barrett: So it's a variety. So if it depends on what you know what the position is you know if it's one of our full time positions if it's in production or something you know we're looking for someone that has a background in fermentation science. If it's someone in our hospitality team we are able to train those skills specific skills a little bit more but we're looking for people that are outgoing and that like talking to people that aren't afraid of hard work. And then for sales we actually have a pretty rigorous sales testing process where we actually have our sales our prospective sales reps take some psychological profile tests so we can understand if they're going to fit in with our company and we use that data to help determine if it's going to work out for both parties the end of the day. If somebody doesn't like to work here they're not ultimately going to be successful. And that's a waste of their time and

Malcolm Lui: Right. Definitely. Now imagine you have a large number of part time folks. Why is that

Jason Barrett: So on any given Friday and Saturday night we're doing between 15 and 20 liquor store tastings as well as running both of our bars and also during the week. We're doing quite a bit of bottling where we need six to eight people to run our bottling line and our production team only has three full time members on it. So we've you know we try to find it as a win win for either retired folks or maybe schoolteachers or folks they're just looking to get out of the house and earn a little bit of extra income while also enjoying what they do. We've got a fairly flexible scheduling program where they can actually online you know say when they're going to be out of town or unavailable or if all of a sudden something changes they're able to put their shift up on this and reach out to other team members to get that shift covered. So it's a good work life integration that we offer and we you know we have an opportunity to be a part of a great movement

Malcolm Lui: Right.

Jason Barrett: And you know it's a lot of fun

Malcolm Lui: Now you mentioned a word movement. Can you talk a bit about more a bit more about your movement

Jason Barrett: I mean I think the employees. Yeah I think a lot of our employees and our consumers they care about where their food comes from. They care about the environment they care about how things are made and what they're putting into their bodies. They want to know that it's been ethically sourced and that it's ethically managed and and they also want really high quality products that add to the conversation and add to their lifestyle and we provide all of those things

Malcolm Lui: Ok. Great for number two talk about the product what your customers want. One. One set of customers of course are the people who are consuming at the end. Another one you mentioned were liquor stores in your mind. Who are your customers and how do you figure out what they want

Jason Barrett: So our customers you know a lot of the accounts they buy from us our local liquor store is in New York State they're all independently owned liquor stores. But our end consumers tend to be highly educated between the ages of 35 and 55 about 60 percent female 40 percent male. They tend to be folks that are you know that have a little bit of disposable income but maybe not so much that they are going to splurge on big ticket items but being able to buy higher quality spirits enjoy it at the end of a long day or at the end of a long week and again have high quality products that are made right in their community. I think that is what is so much interest to our end consumers

Malcolm Lui: Ok. And how do you figure out what they want. You mentioned that earlier about figure out what they want in providing a product that

Jason Barrett: So

Malcolm Lui: Fits

Jason Barrett: It's

Malcolm Lui: The needs

Jason Barrett: It's definitely twofold. We we ask them in our tasting rooms or in or through our social media but also a lot of it. We try to create products that you know that we like and that we want to drink and ultimately hope that if if we really like it you know we will have enough consumers to join us that it will be successful. Not all of our products have been. We did a black button black mocha two years ago everyone thought the Black Vodka was cute but most people thought that it was licorice flavored and there wasn't a lot of call for that. We didn't continue that after the fact. So was a fun idea but was a one and done whereas other ones are bourbon cream was a suggestion from my father. He was always a cream macaw fan. Thought we could do it better. Ultimately we did and it became a hit and and we still saw a lot of it today.

Malcolm Lui: Very

Jason Barrett: So

Malcolm Lui: Cool.

Jason Barrett: I think that the fact that we will always be trying new things also helps us find which ones are successful and which ones aren't

Malcolm Lui: So how quickly can you whip up a new recipe and have a batch out there for people to taste.

Jason Barrett: So it's not quite as easy as some folks might think. We do have to get federal label approval and formula approval. So although the product itself can come together in just a couple of weeks it's probably a three to six month process to get it licensed and regulated and approved before we can sell any of

Malcolm Lui: Are

Jason Barrett: The

Malcolm Lui: You

Jason Barrett: Actual

Malcolm Lui: Able to

Jason Barrett: R and D we we start every time we start a new batch of product every day. Most of that obviously being related to what we're making on an ongoing basis but we have the ability to slot in R and D whenever we need to

Malcolm Lui: So are you able to come up with a new recipe and an offer for people to sample and taste or do you actually go through the whole federal label and an approval process for you can get to that stage

Jason Barrett: So we do have to get federal label approval before we will have people taste in our tasting rooms. The staff sometimes tastes with me. But that in the back. But unfortunately wear is a highly regulated industry. So we do have to comply with those

Malcolm Lui: Right. OK. And essentially you have to wait for the formula to be done for you and your staff to say it looks like a go and then go through that process of getting approval before you can ultimately make test it with the consumers and see if they're going to buy it or not

Jason Barrett: Correct.

Malcolm Lui: Right. OK. Is the approval process pretty straightforward or is it always a bit of a roll roll of the dice and not really knowing what the outcome might be

Jason Barrett: I mean it's it's just specific I guess as I always tell it to people. Once you get the first few times you do it it's very difficult. But once you get used to it you come to realize that the effects are just trying to keep everybody safe. So there are certain products that are listed as you know known and safe. And other ones that are more experimental if it's more experimental it's going to require more testing and more approval process. But when you're taking botanicals that are generally known to the Fed as safe for human consumption you know it's a pretty straightforward process sometimes there's a few details but ultimately usually get approved in the first go around. Did you try to remind people that we are making a food product that the anyday if you were going to take this home and ingest it and we want to make sure that it's safe for all of them. So

Malcolm Lui: Right. Exactly. And now to what degree is safety in the risk of a bad batch getting out there an issue. When it comes to making a product like yours

Jason Barrett: So there's really not there's really not too much of an opportunity because anything that's going to make it hazardous is also going to taste awful. And since we do quality control checks along the way we would notice those things before they got out to the market. So we have a pretty rigorous safety protocol in place to make sure that nothing harmful gets out that.

Malcolm Lui: And I mentioned the nature of your product also is not conducive for stuff to grow in it either

Jason Barrett: I would say that that it does help. I mean as a high alcohol product you could actually use it to use as a disinfectant or or you know to cleanse things. So it is fairly safe by nature and yet

Malcolm Lui: Right. Okay. Interesting. The third driver a bit of luck and hard work working seven days a week. You talk a little bit about that because you're working hard seven days a week is the syntactic but it does tire people out and maybe result in higher staff turnover lower job satisfaction. Can you talk a little bit about that

Jason Barrett: Yeah. So I actually saw our employees were very clear with them that we want them to only work five days a week. The production team and the sales team work Monday through Friday our hospitality team and some of our consumer outreach teams are really more of like a Tuesday through Saturday or Wednesday through Sunday depending on the individual employee. We try really hard to have the employees have two days off in a row. I myself you know flit or in and out and still trying to find some of that balance. But again it's sort of I always think the idea of work life balance is a little odd because it implies that the two are opposed to each other. So I'm always striving for work life integration. You know if I'm able to schedule a day in the middle of the week to you know to focus on one of my hobbies or have a little time to myself I'll take that but then maybe I'll come in on Saturday and work our tasting room alongside our hospitality team and go and get to meet guests and give tours and things like that. So it's just sort of a dynamic dance I do actually. I think a lot of entrepreneurs attempt to work too many hours. So I'm pretty hard on myself that if it's going to be a late night I try to have it be a little bit of a late start to a day. And then also I think I do a good job of making sure that all our employees take their paid time off and taking mine as well.

Malcolm Lui: Right.

Jason Barrett: I'm always surprised at how refreshed I come back after a little bit of time away. So I think it's important for people to work smarter as well as working hard but realize that the human body is only built for so much

Malcolm Lui: Yeah. You do need to embrace the recharge now. How did you grow your sales from six digits to seven digits so quickly was your team canvassing every single independent liquor store in the state of New York and in giving them samples and sending bottles and just trying to generate the interest. Was that how you did it or was there another way of getting your product out there and selling more bottles.

Jason Barrett: So really more of a holistic approach. You know we kind of call it the business model or the business web where rather than just trying to put the product in as many places as possible we're trying to get we're trying to create the whole from consumers. So we're doing a lot of consumer educating a lot of those liquor store tastings that I was talking about a lot of advertising in local festivals or be it local applications. So the consumers want the products but then all. And then trying to match that up with places that it's available throughout the the distribution network. So we've really primarily focused on upstate New York. This coming year we'll be pushing into the lower Hudson Valley and long island but it's very much you know it's it's it's grinding. It's yet it's day in and day out calling on liquor stores making sure they have what they need. Making sure to introduce consumers to it making sure to spread the good word and get out in front of people. You know it's the basic building blocks of our industry and then executing on those repeatedly and making sure that we're not you know you can get placements but if you don't have any consumer interest you won't sell any product and if you have consumer interest and you have no placements then you have no ability for consumers to buy your product. So it's really trying to manage both the and the interest level as well as the availability

Malcolm Lui: Right. You don't want to disappoint people right because they'll just say Oh you don't have a black button Look I just buy this brand instead.

Jason Barrett: Yes.

Malcolm Lui: So you don't want that to happen. Got it. Now I took a quick look at what you were doing from a paperclip perspective and FCO perspective and the tools that I have and I'm not seeing a much on either front. What's your take on that

Jason Barrett: So we're in the process of changing over how we're going to be doing that. So we had been doing some in the past and we will be again. But we're in the process of switching partners that we work with. So that's I think why you're not seeing much of it. I do think that is the future of advertising especially because it's much more trackable and much more cost effective. We've really found that it can yield some great returns on investment especially the more detailed and specific the targeted audience can be. So that's actually one of the reasons why we are upgrading from our former agency we work with to the new agency that we believe will be better suited to our needs.

Malcolm Lui: Right. Okay.

Jason Barrett: It's also our slower time of year. So it's one of the reasons why we're making that change now as we rebuild and get ready for the year at

Malcolm Lui: Now why is now the slower time of the year free

Jason Barrett: I think it just has to do with how everybody kind of stocks their shell. So during the holidays I think a lot of consumers buy more products due to family events and then they're in the process of working those. I think they consume a few more of those products during the holidays as well but also how do you know I think they then usually have extra a lot of liquor stores also try to have more inventory on hand during the fall and then they taper off their supplies and distributors in the same way. So you know it's really just sort of some I think the sales themselves are a little bit more steady but because our industry kind of does this big ramp up and ramp down of inventory every year that's where we see such a volume change in our sales

Malcolm Lui: Right. Got it. So can you share what your 2019 plans are

Jason Barrett: So we're going to double the size of our sales and marketing teams. We're going to push into eastern New York especially New York City and Long Island. We feel we've got an opportunity to more than double the size of the company over the next 18 months. And so we want to stay really focused on supporting those new employees integrating them into the black button process and helping them find the success in eastern New York that we have seen in western New York

Malcolm Lui: And what do you hear as the biggest challenges of accomplishing your goal of doubling your business in 18 months.

Jason Barrett: I mean there's definitely a lot of uncertainty in the market today. You know I think the politics of the world is they are causing a lot of consumers to be a little bit concerned. Always a challenge to find the right people and help acclimate them to a company. So maintaining our corporate culture as well as you know hiring new team members is definitely critical for us. And then as I said I mean it's just a lot of hard work day in and day out. And you know you got to find the right stores department or with the right festivals to partner with you. We've developed processes that help us do that. But every time we move into a new area we've got to adapt those processes for that area. So it's a lot of great challenges but should be a lot of fun. And yet all all things we will be overcoming I'm sure.

Malcolm Lui: How about in the marketing and sales side. In particular I know you talked about finding people is a challenge. You talk a little bit about finding the right stores in the right festivals. How are you to go about finding the right stores and the right festivals

Jason Barrett: So a lot of it is data driven. We have some pretty good data from various industry partners but one of the things we've often used is census demographic data. We have a good understanding of how our spirits play in terms of various economic indicators. And so the stores are in suburban markets that tend to be more affluent they're more likely to to work well for us. So

Malcolm Lui: Ok now do you have a hard cut office do what you define as affluent and not affluent.

Jason Barrett: No.

Malcolm Lui: Or is

Jason Barrett: So

Malcolm Lui: It

Jason Barrett: When I actually we call on all stores regardless of you know of that data but where we're gonna be focusing some of our time and where we tend to see the results but we actually make a lot of it has to do with the individual store and how they get behind it. So we have some inner city stores that are you know would not you know statistically be the right state. But if the if the owner or the manager really likes you know really likes the products and they are telling their customers about it and they have a good relationship with their customer you know any store can be a good store and stores that one would expect to be quite lucrative can sometimes end up being quite a disappointment. So the data gives us good indications but at the end of the day it's the feet on the street. And the reality of it they will tell us exactly what happens.

Malcolm Lui: So when you mean we talk about the owners getting behind your products. Some of them doing tastings of your product. When people ask them for advice as to which whiskey to buy that they might go I recommend the black button whiskey that sort

Jason Barrett: Right.

Malcolm Lui: Of support

Jason Barrett: Yeah. A lot of people as they when they walk down the aisle you know if a sales a sales person at that liquor store comes upon them they might say I'm looking for a gift for my father. I'm looking to have an event with some friends of mine. What can you recommend in that recommendation was always a very powerful indicator of success.

Malcolm Lui: Right now in the wine market right. There are these ratings and scores right. So I mean for someone like myself who might not really know any better I might just go for a highly rated wine. Are there similar such ratings for spirits

Jason Barrett: There are although they tend not to have numbers they tend to be like gold medal silver medal bronze medal. You know we try to make sure that each year each spirit wins a couple of awards. But there's so many that it's hard for us to place a lot of stock or value in any individual competition. So you know we always there's no doubt that the the awards help but I don't and I think like you many consumers use them as a judge of quality to make sure that the products they're buying are good value

Malcolm Lui: Right. Got it. Now three final questions for you. So you decide to have a black button distillery billboard on a freeway that moves quite well. Typically people have six seconds to read a billboard message what is left and distilleries back but in distilling message on that billboard.

Jason Barrett: So we tend to have to do the black button live large in small batches or black button straight from New York. And a picture of Obama. So

Malcolm Lui: Both are good live large and small batches. I like that. And can you recap again. Who are your ideal customers and what's the best way for them to find your product

Jason Barrett: So I mean our ideal customers are someone who you know is enjoying a spirit or a cocktail after a long day of work. They tend to be between the ages of 35 and 55 skewing slightly more female than male. You know just hardworking folks that want to enjoy one of life's simple pleasures I've been drink at the end of the day if they are in New York state the best way to find our products is to go to their local liquor store and ask for the products if they are outside New York state they can head to our Web site and under the where to buy a cab there is a link to some companies that do ship to most of the United States. Different links will we do two different states because the rules are very complex and that same where to buy a champion help people in New York State identify it's their liquor store already carries our products but if they don't they can get them pretty easily. So

Malcolm Lui: We'd like to share. The domain name the Yarnell of your website

Jason Barrett: Yeah it's just black button distilling dot com. Again that's black button distilling

Malcolm Lui: Awesome. So why did you go with distilling as opposed to distiller

Jason Barrett: So in my opinion a distillery is a place a distilling company is a group of people that have a variety of brands. So it felt like black button distilling fit us better than any other name.

Malcolm Lui: All right. Got it. All right fantastic. Thanks so much for spending time with me today and sharing how you grew your company's high value sales so fast

Jason Barrett: Happy to do it sir. Thank you.

Malcolm Lui: We've been speaking with Jason Barrett, the President of Black Button Distilling, about his company's rapid growth. For interviews with other fast growing, high value sales companies, or to learn how we can accelerate your firm's high value sales through automation, visit

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