Archives for August 2014

Black Button: not just for suit jackets anymore!

For four generations, Jason Barrett’s family has been keeping men’s suit jackets closed, one button at a time (well, depending on current fashion trends, maybe more, but I digress).  Because Jason’s color-blind, the family joke was that he could always make black buttons. The other thing he discovered he could make, at the age of 19 in his dorm room, was beer. Granted, he wasn’t old enough to buy it in a store, but no law said he couldn’t make it. After a stint in corporate America that showed him he’s not cut out to be a desk jockey, Jason decided to start his own distillery. Wait. What? Buttons…then beer…and now bourbon? Beer and bourbon start out the same way (hopefully you signed up for my newsletter and got a copy of my e-book, What’s In Your Glass Anyway?  to learn that and other fun facts). Jason decided to bend his homebrew skills to distilling and Black Button Distilling was born!

Located in Jason’s hometown of Rochester, NY, beside Rohrbach Brewing Company is a building that has astill lovely but mostly unassuming door…with a button on it. Inside the vintage building is a state-of-the-art distillery, that makes about 900 bottles a week of Black Button’s signature gin, vodka and whiskey. Everything that goes into Black Button’s bottles is all-natural: grains grown on a nearby farm, botanicals from the area. Grain-to-glass is a term is used by small distillers, to describe their handcrafted spirits and Black Button closely follows that philosophy.

What’s even more awesome is that Black Button opened less than a year ago, and is already cranking out booze that people are raving about. Their gin is named Citrus Forward Gin, because as Jason said, “Who wants to be smacked in the face with a Christmas tree??”. I’d agree! While juniper is required for the hooch to be called gin, it doesn’t have to taste like you’re chomping down a branch of it.  Black Button’s Yelp reviews say it nicely, “Where the magic happens,” and “My favorite when I went was the gin. Yum!”.

Currently on the menu alongside the gin is their Wheat Vodka and Moonshine. Jason did his homework when he learned distilling, and shared a bit of it with me. Moonshine is the unaged version of a distillery’s whiskey. But it’s not as simple as just putting it in a bottle instead of a barrel to age. To get a moonshine that’s tasty on its own, a distiller needs to choose the best place to cut what’s coming off the still. Heads are first, hearts, then tails. You don’t really want to drink either the heads nor tails, but some of both are required to get the right flavor profile as a spirit ages in a barrel. Since moonshine’s going straight into a bottle, a distiller must be more careful in choosing how much or how little of the heads and tails to include.  Jason believes that this cut is what sets Black Button’s moonshine apart from some of the other stuff on the shelf.Jason

Last but certainly not least according to the Yelpers is Black Button’s maple syrup. They get fresh maple syrup from Vermont and let it age for a short time in used whiskey barrels, which will later be used to finish Jason’s four grain bourbon. But for now, they produce what one reviewer called, “liquid crack!”. Pass the pancakes please, I think I’ve found a new home.

Live Large…in small batches is the motto on the Black Button website. Did I mention that Jason’s only in his mid-twenties?  I’d say he’s definitely following his own motto.

Black Button Distilling’s products are available all over the Rochester area with plans in the works to expand across New York. They also give distillery tours and have some great merchandise in the tasting room. If you’re in the area, stop by and tell them LikeYourLiquor sent you! Cheers!



Sorel: the 65th Crayon

Get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’.

-Andy Dufresne, Shawshank Redemption

That’s probably one of my favorite movies and movie quotes.  And for Jack Summers, never were truer words spoken, the day his doctor said, “We think you have an Ependymoma”. Surviving not only the cancer scare (benign, thankfully), but also the surgery that could’ve paralyzed him, Jack was sent down a whole new path.  One that has led him to the delicious business of making Sorel, a hibiscus liqueur that comes from his Caribbean roots.

Jack From Brooklyn

Jack From Brooklyn

After a couple of decades of marching to the corporate drum, Jack faced the Reaper – and survived. You can read his full account here. One of the things that struck me was when he was struggling to come to terms with his looming date with the surgeon: he didn’t give in to a case of, “Why me?” . In the early dawn hours on a beach in Cancun, tequila in hand, Jack had a chat with Death – and this is what he was told:  ““Truthfully Jack, I don’t understand why this has you so shaken up. This is not the first time I’ve come for you. It’s just the first time you’re paying attention.”

Surgery successfully behind him, it was time to put corporate America in the rearview, too, and follow his passion. He’d been perfecting the recipe for Sorel in his kitchen during that same time (I’d agree that an office job could drive one to drink make booze, just sayin’).  Hibiscus is notoriously difficult to work with, and the spices Jackie chose were also dominant players: Brazilian clove, Indonesian cassia and nutmeg, Nigerian ginger. Trial and error, blending the ingredients so they danced together (and not like a West Side story thing), getting the acidic hibiscus to play nice all took time. Fortunately, after almost 2 decades of experimenting, it wasn’t long before the final recipe for Sorel was ready.

SORELHandsDuring a series of Skype chats I got to know, at least a bit, the man behind the brand.  Don’t get me wrong – Sorel is fantastic, and if I’d not met Jack, I’d still think it was tasty. But there’s something extra that comes from talking with Jack, hearing his observations on life, business and being happy with what you do, that added an extra dimension to my first taste of Sorel.

Did I mention that his new distillery, housed in a 165 year old building in Red Hook, was hit by Hurricane Sandy? But six feet of water wasn’t enough to stop a man raised on such mottos as, “May you live forever and may you never die”, (his mom’s favorite toast) and “We don’t waste alcohol in this house – there are sober children in Africa”. Don’t get me wrong – Sandy was a disaster of immense proportion, whose aftereffects are still being felt.  But if Death couldn’t take Jack, what makes you think a little excess water could?

I asked Jack what the strangest way someone had used Sorel.  A retail manager sent him an email about a customer that he introduced to Sorel, by way of a bet…that the customer lost.  The challenge was that if the manager could pair Sorel with any bottle of the customer’s choosing, the customer would buy both bottles.  Game on!  The customer chose….Laphroaig. If you’re not familiar with them, here’s a hint: Laphroaig is currently running a customer opinion campaign, asking for descriptions of their Scotch.  One customer describes it as a, “big, peaty slap in the face”. The manager was up to the challenge – and the customer went home happy, with a new favorite.

No doubt, Jack’s had more than a few challenges the last few years (yes, this didn’t happen over many years, only about 4). Here’s what he had to say on that score: “Talent counts, luck counts, but resolve will get you through the tough spots. And there will be tough spots daily. Figure out what the insurmountable task of the day is, then surmount the living hell out of it.”

Words to live by, no matter if you’re a guy making tasty liquor in Red Hook, a girl making coffee in Seattle, or a spirits writer in San Diego. sorel

Feni Paloma

Hopefully you just finished reading about what Feni is, in my interview with DrinkFeni’s co-founder, Drew Whited. If not, the quick version is that Feni is a liquor distilled only in India from the juice of a cashew apple.  It’s a perfectly clear, slightly viscous liquid, but you’ll never mistake this for vodka nor gin. Feni has a sweet taste, slightly reminiscent of a new piece of Juicy Fruit gum. There’s little to no alcohol burn, which isn’t too surprising at 42.5% ABV (85 proof). It mixes well with a variety of fruit juices, from sweet pineapple, to the tart grapefuit juice in this month’s Feni Paloma recipe. Lemonade and 7-Up also work well.  My new friend Natalie over at came up with this recipe and of course, these lovely photos.  Feni is currently available in Chicago for right around $24 a bottle.  If you’re not in the Windy City, visit FeniDrink and fill out the interest form – they’d love to hear from you!Feni4


1 ounce Feni

1 ounce fresh grapefruit juice

½ cup of ice

½ ounce of Grand Marnier

top of with grapefruit soda

Garnish: Grapefruit slice and grapefruit zest


  • In a cocktail shaker add Feni, fresh grapefruit juice, ice, and Grand Marnier
  • Shake mixture for 20 seconds and then pour mixture into serving glass
  • Top with grapefruit soda
  • Garnish: Grapefruit slice and grapefruit zest

Yields: 1 serving


Feni? What is it anyway?

Ever wonder where a cashew comes from? That little Planters guy conjures them up with his cane?  Nope. They fall from a rainbow like Skittles? Wrong again! They actually grow on a tree inside a cashew apple.  Um, really?  The cashew nut is a bit sexier than its accessory fruit (but admittedly, not by much), which looks a little like a pumpkin and a bell pepper had a hot night together. So when you take out the nut (enter Planters dude stage left), you’re left with the cashew apple.  But now what? You press the livin’ daylights out of it to get cashew apple juice.  The juice has more vitamin C than most any other fruit or veggie.  I can hear you thinking, “That’s nifty and all, but isn’t this supposed to be about alcohol?”.  Right you are!  If you distill it once, you get something called urrak, that’s about 30 proof and mixes well with lemonade for a light summer drink. If you distill it a second time, it becomes cazulo (urrak mixed with some of the fermented cashew apple juice). A third round, where you mix the cazulo and urrak together and distill it again, gives you the higher proof spirit, Feni, which is the moral of the cashew nut story.DSC_1309

In India, in the state of Goa, the cashew apple tree grows.  They’ve been distilling the juice for many years, with thousands of micro-distillers selling feni to their local customers. It’s only distilled from February to mid-May, and is dependent on the size of the seasonal crop.  In 2009, Feni was given a fancy certification by the government (Geographical Indication, if you’d like to Google it – I’ll wait). It basically means that if it’s called Feni, it can only be made in Goa. Like Bourbon can only be made in the US, cashew Feni can only be made in Goa.

I can hear you thinking again.  This time, it’s “Isn’t this site about American craft liquor?”.  And yes, by and large it is.  I don’t cover big labels (except in the occasional comparison), because they have gazillion dollar marketing budgets and certainly don’t need my help.  But the stories I write here are also about being an entrepreneur, grabbing your piece of the American Dream.  And that’s just what Drew Whited and his partners did.

Drew Whited

Drew Whited

While doing some market research in LA for another venture, they were in communities with large Indian American populations.  They kept hearing about feni.  Intrigued, they fired up their laptops and went to work researching it.  After deciding it was something worth at least some initial investigation, they scheduled meetings with Goa’s top feni producers and took off for India.

Spending time with the families that produce feni convinced Drew and his partners that  they needed to find a way to get Feni into the US. After negotiating an exclusive agreement to import Feni into the US, the real work began. <insert months of boring government compliance work here>  Finally, it was July 2014 and Feni was legal in the US.

Feni_1Drew and his partners launched Feni in Chicago in July 2014. Chicago has the country’s third largest population of Indian Americans, who hopefully will be eager for a taste of feni, without having to travel half way across the globe. In Goa, feni is treated as a destination beverage, with elaborate bottles that are part of the state’s standing as a vacation spot, with sandy beaches and tasty feni. And when I say “vacation spot”, this isn’t the Jersey Shore. Goa is the smallest but richest state in India and is often the site of weddings, celebrations and other destination events. The design of the bottle, complete with a gold cap and an image of Buddha, are meant to echo the exotic beverage as it’s consumed in its native country.

Make sure to check out the recipes on and also the custom cocktail that BeautifulBooze created!  Cheers!

My tale from Tales of the Cocktail 2014

Some tales begin with, “it was a dark and stormy night”.  Some begin with, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. For my tale, it began with a Vieux Carre, made in its birthplace, New Orleans. I’m talking about Tales of the Cocktail, and this is my Tale.

Vieux Carre at the Hotel Moneteleone - the first of many

Vieux Carre at the Hotel Moneteleone – the first of many

Tales of the Cocktail 2014 is billed as the world’s premier cocktail event, and it’s held in two cities: Buenos Aires and New Orleans.  For my first event, I thought I’d stick a little closer to home, plus, I’d never been to Nawlins before. The buzz among some of my Twitterverse friends decided it: I have to give a shout out to William Lorca (@acubsfan007) for hanging out with me and taking all the pictures I was apparently not taking. He’s the purveyor of fine opinions on everything from bourbon to the service level of rental car companies – you should follow him!  I booked a flight, bought some seminar tickets and waited many long months til July.  It was finally here – off on my first Tales adventure!

For the small investment of about $100 (you can spend more), you get tickets to 2 seminars of your choosing, plus a wristband that gets you into every tasting room.  Free.  I’m an adult, I’ve learned to pace myself through these kinds of events, but nothing prepared me for 6 days of cocktails.

Krista from JAD, Jason of Blue Jay Syrups and Warren Bobrow

Krista from JAD, Jason of Blue Jay Syrups and Warren Bobrow

My fabulous new friends at Jersey Artisan Distilling and Blue J Syrups hosted their own tasting room the first morning. I’d purposely scheduled nothing earlier than 10:30 on any day, because that seems reasonable, right? Sure – until you don’t get in til 3 or 4, you are mostly sure that dinner happened and what’s stuck to your shoe? Fortunately, it was the first day, so I was relatively fresh (I said, relatively) that morning. I manned the giveaway table, handing out fabulous t-shirts, shot glasses and assorted stuff for JAD. It was fun! Two hours passed quickly, meeting many lovely people and telling them about Jersey’s first distillery since Prohibition. Check out my interview with co-founder, Krista Haley. Neat or mixed with the fantastic concoctions from Blue J Syrups (I highly recommend JAD’s dark rum with the Earl Grey Lavender!), Busted Barrel rum is quite tasty!

Whew. Off to a seminar about starting your own (spirits) company.  That’s the way the title was written and as it turns out, it really was slightly more about starting “a” company, than a liquor company.  All good information, though.  My other official seminar wasn’t until Thursday, so I was free to roam the various tasting rooms.

Will Lorca, Ricardo from Sotol, yours truly and Jamie from Cinch

Will Lorca, Ricardo from Sotol, yours truly and Jamie from Cinch

It does help to have a plan – there are SO many things going on, that you want to make sure that you get to your first choices, and then since there’s likely time, your second choices.  One of the things that I really liked, as a spirits writer: I was not only tasting things myself, but I could talk to other people doing the same thing. I’ve said it before – I’m not going to write a review that says, “this whiskey tastes like blue flowers with a hint of cigarette ash that’s been wiped out of grandma’s ashtray”. Not only does my palate not tell me that stuff all the time (thank you, allergies), but seriously – I write reviews that I can relate to, hoping that works for you as well. So talking to people that are tasting the same thing, at the same time I am, was really interesting.

One of my favorites was the OYO Stone Fruit vodka by Middle West Spirits – you really can taste the fruits. Real fruit, not fruit flavors. Some of my favorites: cherries, apricots, peaches. Yum! Keep an eye out for an interview with the founder, Ryan Lang, and possibly a product review in the coming weeks.

Another favorite was Philadelphia Distilling’s The Bay Vodka.  I grew up back East, eating a ton of Old Bay on steamed crabs, so this was like a taste of home.  And put it in a good Bloody Mary mix?  Divine.  They even served it with oysters on the half shell – apparently they’d heard I’d be there.

Standing back from the tables, looking to see who was next on the list of things to try, I saw a lovely lady carrying a box of little flip-top bottles. Chance conversations are always the best – I think mine started with something truly witty like, “So why are you carrying that box around?”.  Turns out she is Jamie Imhof, and she was there to test out her new line of tonics, Cinch Cocktail Tonics.  Their tagline is, “the cure for the common cocktail”, which I definitely agree. Jamie was also carrying around a full test batch , so over dinner, I was able to try all the things that are currently in R&D at Cinch.  Trust me – you want them to be ready soon!  Great flavors that will compliment any cocktail. I’ve got a test bottle of #2 that I’ll be reviewing soon.  Can’t wait!

Another chance meeting (at the pool party this time), was Ricardo Rodriguez, brand ambassador for Sotol Hacienda De Chihuahua.  Named after the plant it’s distilled from (Desert Spoon), Sotol is tequila’s northern cousin, distilled primarily in the region of Chihuahua.  I’m not typically a fan of tequila, but I’m always game to try something new (can’t be much of a spirits writer if I don’t!).  Fortunately for me, Ricardo’s ridiculously heavy bag contained samples of all the versions of Sotol.  I can safely say that Sotol is now added to my list of tasty beverages, especially the Crema version – a great riff on a cream based liqueur (think Bailey’s) – yum!

Last but certainly not least, my friends at Bayou Rum.  I’d tried their rum back in March, and it’s quite good.  Made in Louisiana, from 100% natural unrefined Louisiana cane sugar and molasses, both light and dark are yummy.  However – their new baby, Satsuma – is the one I’m waiting (im)patiently to find on a shelf. I quite enjoy orange flavors (as long as they’re real) in my cocktails, so I’ve used everything from bitters to Dry Cacacao to just grabbing one out of my fruit bowl and squeezing it into my shaker.  Satsuma is sweet without being too sweet and the orange flavor really comes through (the base is Bayou Silver rum).  Look for my interview with their founder, Trey and (hopefully!!) a product review.

I was also able to meet and hang out with Warren Bobrow, author of Apothecary Cocktails: Restorative Drinks from Yesterday and Today and his upcoming book, Whiskey Cocktails: Rediscovered Classics and Contemporary Craft Drinks Using the World’s Most Popular Spirit.  Warren is friends with and a neighbor of my new friends at Jersey Artisan – how cool is that?Another highlight from my first trip to Tales. Warren also travels with his companion, Klaus the Soused Gnome – follow his adventures on Facebook.

Klaus the Soused Gnome, in his element

Klaus the Soused Gnome, in his element

While there are many other tastes, sights and sounds from NOLA, (pool cucumbers, the best $60 spent in the history of money, and many rounds of refreshing Cointreau cocktails), I think I’ll stop here for now.  Look for the interviews and product reviews from these great distillers soon!  Cheers!

Grab the button!