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Distilleries from New York to Montana help each other’s businesses thrive.
By Katie DeTar Lalley
Butte, Montana may seem a world apart from Rochester, New York. But when it comes to unique craft beverages, these cities—and others like them—collaborate with creativity.
Out west the city of Butte, in central Montana, is home to roughly 35,000 people. In the late 19th century, the mining town experienced a population boom as immigrants arrived to mine copper. The city’s mining was famous enough that newcomers landed at Ellis Island with signs that simply stated, “Bring Me to Butte, America.” Mining is ever present in Butte, as the city is now most famous as the site of the Berkeley Pit, a surprisingly beautiful yet toxic Superfund site.
Photo Credit: Katie DeTar Lalley
Visitors to Butte can see the mining areas and view the pit, tour the historic downtown with well-preserved 19th century architecture, and even visit a former brothel where those mining men were once, ahem, serviced. Butte is nestled amongst Montana’s famous “big sky” scenery, popular with visitors traveling between Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park.
Back east sits Rochester, in western New York, famous for flowers and images. The city on the shores of Lake Ontario is home to more than 200,000 people, and the internationally recognized Lilac Festival. Kodak founder George Eastman began his photography business in Rochester, and his former home houses an acclaimed museum of photography and film. “Flower City” is also noted for Rochester native and famed suffragette Susan B. Anthony and her friend, abolitionist and Rochester resident Frederick Douglass.
Rochester is a former industrial city that now houses innovative small businesses, a thriving arts and cultural scene, and diverse culinary options. The metropolitan region sits on the north edge of the Finger Lakes, known for more than 100 wineries along 11 glacial lakes and rich, fertile soil for agricultural pursuits.
Despite the distance, varied histories, and drastically different geography, friendships have been forged between Butte and Rochester, all in the name of craft distilled spirits.
“This industry is just a tiny little universe,” says Courtney McKee, co-founder and CEO of Headframe Spirits in Butte.
Photo Credit: Katie DeTar Lalley
McKee collaborates regularly with many other distillers across the United States, including in her role on the board and with the education committee of the American Craft Spirits Association. Through an annual convention, learning sessions, and other connection opportunities, she and other distillers share teachable moments and ideas on how to best market craft distilled spirits to an ever-growing customer base.
“The goal is for people to build relationships with their peers in the class, people at the same point they are at, and with the folks that are teaching these classes,” says McKee. “A guiding philosophy of mine is that the better we each do the better we all do.”
One of those colleagues is Jason Barrett, founder, owner, and head distiller of Black Button Distilling in Rochester.
“Craft distillers like each other so much,” says Barrett. “There are few industries where the people that are most like you, you don’t view as competitors. I always call them compatriots.”
Barrett’s Black Button products share a distributor with Headframe products in a few states, and they’ve created promotions together to create cocktails using the two brands.
Courtney McKee and her husband and business partner John McKee also manufacture custom distilling equipment. Thanks to industry friendships, Barrett was able to assist when another New York State distiller chose to install equipment made by the folks at Headframe.
“It’s all because of these connections. There is no industry database so there is no way to replace these in-person connections,” says Barrett.
Barrett and McKee feel that collaboration is simply good for business. It helps consumers learn about a variety of products and places, and intrigues travelers to visit distilleries as part of their explorations. More and more, people are catching on that distillers offer a unique look into the history and agriculture of a region.
“Distillation is distillation and that is universal,” says McKee. “The underlying science is the same thing. That provides a shared language. And from there we get into the fun things that differentiate us: the type of grain, and our geography, and the process that we use.”
Black Button recently started harvesting its own white oak trees in the Finger Lakes to make barrels for aging spirits. Grain comes from nearby Geneseo, N.Y., and the water supply—from the Hemlock Finger Lake—is, according to Barrett, instrumental in the finished product’s unique and local taste.
At Headframe, McKee and her team pride themselves on telling stories of local heritage and mining history. All of the products have a name that correlates in some way to mining. The distillery is also creating products to showcase Montana historic and heritage sites and to tell stories around Montana’s natural scenery and agriculture.
“From a tourism standpoint, you’ve got businesses like Headframe, distilleries across the country, that are revitalizing their communities,” says McKee. “Telling stories in and of their communities that have never been told before. And giving people something to be proud of and inspired by their town. This is so much more than making booze.”
At Bently Heritage—another of McKee’s industry collaborators—in Minden, Nevada, the tasting room recently opened in a historic mill. The grain is all estate grown, and the products are designed to highlight the agricultural heritage of the state in an eco-conscious way.
John Jeffery, master distiller at Bently Heritage, agrees that collaboration is a rising tide for all distillers, and that telling local stories is primary to the traveler experience. “From the Kentucky Bourbon Trail to the Scottish Malt Whiskey Trail, spirits tourism is definitely a thing. We’re on the route from Yosemite and Mammoth Lakes heading north, we’re a half-hour from Lake Tahoe,” says Jeffery. “Our job is to make sure people know we’re here so we’re a part of their plan, and those folks will take our story home with them.”
There are about 2,000 craft distilleries in the United States, representing about four percent the overall American spirits industry. While there is no single defining element of American craft spirits, there are regional distilled spirits trails that lure tourists, from the well-known 200-mile Kentucky Bourbon Trail to the Shenandoah Spirits Trail, Colorado Spirits Trail, Oregon Distillery Trail, and oodles more options nationwide.
In New York, craft spirits trails are developing through the New York State Distillers Guild as a regional tourism driver and economic booster. Jeffery is hoping for the creation of a Nevada statewide guild soon.
Barrett and other distillers in New York are gaining momentum for a designated “Empire Style Rye” to harken back to pre-prohibition days when rye whiskey was commonly made in New York State. There are currently 15 producers in the state creating this specific style of at least 75 percent New York State grown rye grains that is then aged in new, charred oak barrels for a minimum of two years.
There is also talk in the industry of a multi-distiller blended American Craft Whiskey—something to bring to market that builds on that craft distiller collaboration and community.
As more people seek out these unique tastes and stories, there is seemingly no limit to the cross-geographic blending of spirits and ideas to bring the American Craft Distillery movement towards great new heights.
“There is a deep level of respect for anyone who is crazy enough to do what we do for a living,” says Barrett. “And all these people have the same passion for it that we do, and that’s a good thing to base friendships on. We can get more people to our tasting rooms together than separately.”
Enjoy At Home…
Until you’re able to visit, Black Button Distillery shares these cocktail recipes for you to try at home.
Katie DeTar is the creator, host and producer of the public television series “Fringe Benefits,” available on Create TV and PBS Stations. She is a writer, traveler and birth doula. Learn more about Katie on her website wildwomenoftheearth.com and also in this interview.