Jason Barrett of Black Button Distilling: “You still have to live your life”

You still have to live your life. If work consumes you for too long, you will miss great opportunities with friends and family. It’s okay to grind day in and day out, but you have to enjoy life along the way. Many successful people reinvented themselves in a later period in their life. Jeff Bezos worked […]

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You still have to live your life. If work consumes you for too long, you will miss great opportunities with friends and family. It’s okay to grind day in and day out, but you have to enjoy life along the way.


Many successful people reinvented themselves in a later period in their life. Jeff Bezos worked in Wall Street before he reinvented himself and started Amazon. Sara Blakely sold office supplies before she started Spanx. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a WWE wrestler before he became a successful actor and filmmaker. Arnold Schwarzenegger went from a bodybuilder, to an actor to a Governor. McDonald’s founder Ray Croc was a milkshake-device salesman before starting the McDonalds franchise in his 50’s.

How does one reinvent themselves? What hurdles have to be overcome to take life in a new direction? How do you overcome those challenges? How do you ignore the naysayers? How do you push through the paralyzing fear?

In this series called “Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life “ we are interviewing successful people who reinvented themselves in a second chapter in life, to share their story and help empower others.

As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jason Barrett.

From a young age, Jason Barrett, Black Button Distilling President and Head Distiller, worked alongside his grandfather in his family’s Rochester, NY button factory. It was there he learned how hard work, dedication and a commitment to quality can go a long way. Later in life, while serving as a business consultant in Washington DC., Barrett realized his dream of opening a distillery and pursuing a profession that would allow him to work with his hands. After attending several distilling schools across the country, he returned to Rochester, NY and in 2013, officially opened the first craft distillery in the city since prohibition.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

My childhood? School wasn’t really my thing. I just had a hard time focusing on topics that didn’t interest me, unless it was a subject I cared about. In that case, I would learn about it endlessly. Math and history came easily to me, but English and grammar? Not so much. I was active in Boy Scouts, and am an Eagle Scout. I always felt more at home camping and playing in the woods than I did with video games. Three days after I turned 16, I got my first job stocking shelves at the local Target to save up for a beater car and nights at the movies. Soon, I was off to college and new adventures.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I spend a lot of time these days reciting the serenity prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” I try to stay grounded and present. It is key to focus on what you can actually do something about, instead of stressing about what you can’t do anything about. With everything going on around the world and in our nation’s capital, it’s easy to get lost in the problems. I remind myself that I can make a difference by working on the corner of the world that’s in front of me.

How would your best friend describe you?

My freshman year roommate and best man at my wedding would describe me as a dependable and reliable friend, a little dorky and endlessly curious — someone who wants to make the most out of life and all the experiences it can offer.

You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much?

Adaptability

Follow through

Ability to understand the math behind the business

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Second Chapters’. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before your Second Chapter?

I graduated from college with a political science degree. I moved to DC and worked on Capitol Hill for a while before moving into the business world. My first job was a cardboard box salesperson. During this time, I was able to see inside all kinds of factories and work on packaging programs for many manufacturers. After that, Paychex (the payroll processing company) recruited me. I worked in their small business division helping small business owners with payroll and compliance matters. Paychex was kind enough to pay for some MBA classes at George Washington University. This was a huge help in furthering my business and writing Black Button Distilling’s business plan.

And how did you “reinvent yourself” in your Second Chapter?

I had been homebrewing beer in my kitchen as a hobby for several years by the time I got the idea that I wanted to be my own boss. Craft brewing was just getting started in DC, and I became friends with several of the early breweries. Through these friendships, I was introduced to a brewery in North Carolina that was for sale. Buying that brewery didn’t work out, though. It was originally plumbed to be a distillery as well, and had that owner installed the distillery, it likely could have been a profitable business.

I returned to DC with a new interest. Everything I loved about making beer, I could do by making whiskey (and at the end, you have whiskey!). Distilling was also such a new opportunity. With thousands of breweries opening across the country, there were only a few hundred distilleries. As luck would have it, New York had just passed some great farm distilling laws and if you committed to using local ingredients, the licensing fees were greatly reduced. It took another year of research and writing a business plan, but in the spring of 2013, I found a bank to lend me the money for the equipment. By selling my house, I could pay for the rest of the startup costs. So, I quit my job and moved to Spokane, Washington to apprentice at a distillery out there. Eventually, I moved back home to Rochester to start my own shop.

Can you tell us about the specific trigger that made you decide that you were going to “take the plunge” and make your huge transition?

Well, I figured if I started the company entity that I would indeed start the company for real. I called up a lawyer, filed the paperwork and set about writing the business plan. Once that was finished, I started showing it to banks. When bank number seven said yes, I had the funds and the dream to move forward. I was off to the races.

What did you do to discover that you had a new skillset inside of you that you haven’t been maximizing? How did you find that and how did you ultimately overcome the barriers to help manifest those powers?

Necessity is the mother of all invention. When push comes to shove, and you don’t have money to hire the help, you tend to figure things out pretty quickly. You would be amazed at what you can accomplish when your back is against the wall and the wolves are at your door.

How are things going with this new initiative?

What started as a one-man shop making 1,000 bottles a month grew into a staff of 63, and we just bottled our two millionth bottle. Black Button is now available in 14 states and exports to Japan. We closed a Series A venture round in 2019, with one of the top five venture funds in our industry, and we have been EBITDA profitable eight of the last nine years. Things seem to be going pretty well, but we are always looking to do even better and grow to the next level.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My family really deserves a ton of credit. My father retired from the optics industry shortly after I opened the distillery, and he came to work for me. He said, “You don’t have to pay me until you pay yourself, but that also means you can’t tell me what to do.” My mother joined the company a few years later. She serves as our CFO, while continuing to be the CEO of our family button company that the company is named after. In 2018, my then girlfriend, now wife, Stephanie came onboard. Without their support and often their free labor, we wouldn’t be the company we are today. And I can’t say enough positive things about the many employees who have worked so hard alongside my family to make this dream a reality.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?

I don’t even know where to begin. There are so many. One of my favorites was when we launched in Kentucky: the home of Bourbon. We shipped our pallet down on a Monday, and I drove down Thursday for the launch event that weekend. I checked into my hotel and asked the desk manager for the best bourbon bar around. He gave me directions, and when I arrived and sat down at the bar, the bartender looked at me with a funny expression. He saw the logo on my shirt and said, “We just got that bourbon in this morning.” “Impossible,” I said. “It doesn’t launch here until next week.” What are the odds that I walked into a bar carrying my product three days before it launched? Low and behold, he went in the back, brought forth a bottle and opened it right there for us to try. I had indeed walked into the only bar in Kentucky that was carrying my product that day. Sharing it with that bartender was one of the proudest moments of my career up to that point.

Did you ever struggle with believing in yourself? If so, how did you overcome that limiting belief about yourself? Can you share a story or example?

All the time. Running your own small business is a complete emotional rollercoaster with the highest highs and the lowest lows. You just have to pick yourself up, get back on that horse and soldier on. I think the hardest thing for me is having to fire someone. I take it very personally and always wonder what I could have done to help this person be successful. I think about all the time and money we put into training and helping the person, and it’s just very difficult as a leader to feel successful on days like that where you feel you have just failed so completely.

In my own work I usually encourage my clients to ask for support before they embark on something new. How did you create your support system before you moved to your new chapter?

Admittedly, this is something I could have done better. Moving from DC back to Rochester really upended my social circle, and I didn’t have the right support system in place in the early years. Looking back, I would’ve liked to have been in Rochester a little while longer before I started the business. I would’ve had more friends to lean on and talk to when times were tough and to celebrate with when times were good.

Starting a new chapter usually means getting out of your comfort zone, how did you do that? Can you share a story or example of that?

I just go for it. My friends and I wanted to go skydiving, so I signed up. I wanted to white water raft the Grand Canyon, so I signed up. I wanted to learn to fly an airplane, so I took some lessons. You just have to reach out and do the things you want in life before you aren’t able to. We are all going to die someday. The question is: How are you going to live between now and then?

Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

1. Hire great people. Don’t hire average people, make sure to hold out for great people.

2. For you it’s a passion, but for many of your employees, it’s a career. You have to be careful about asking people to pull off super-human things too often, or they will burn out.

3. You have to keep your eye on everything, because in the end the buck stops here.

4. Banks will lend you money when you don’t need it, and they usually won’t lend you money when you do. A multi-year cash flow plan is the key to riding those waves.

5. You still have to live your life. If work consumes you for too long, you will miss great opportunities with friends and family. It’s okay to grind day in and day out, but you have to enjoy life along the way.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

We need to invest in life-long education. We need more resources for teachers and students, and we need more affordable colleges. We need to keep taking classes to learn new skills even after entering the workforce. Never stop learning new things.

What do you want to be remembered for the most?

Personally, I would like to be remembered as a great father and a great friend. Professionally, I hope some of our higher end whiskeys are pretty memorable.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Sign up for our email list https://www.blackbuttondistilling.com/ or find us on Facebook.

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