Buffalo's award-winning spirits
The My Day, made with Tommyrotter gin, and the Vodka & Tea, made with Lockhouse vodka, both from Patina 250
Photo by kc kratt
Changes to the New York Farm Distillery Law in 2014 have made it much easier for small distilleries to set up shop in Buffalo. Prior to that, it had been decades since there were any locally distilled spirits, let alone award-winning ones. There are now at least six operations within city limits, with even more in the surrounding region.
Awards can be an important distinction for distilleries, both as a point of pride and a tool to market their products. “The awards are a valuable indicator to consumers that they are making the right purchase,” says Tommyrotter Distillery cofounder and master distiller Bobby Finan. “When you win those awards, you go up against the products of distillers from international mega-businesses to small distilleries around the United States and you are chosen as the best; it’s not a matter of right time, right place. It’s a personal victory.”
The submission process for most of these awards is the same. Distilleries fill out an application for the spirits they’re submitting and choose the categories that best fit. Cory Muscato, partner and operations manager at Lockhouse Distillery, says, “It’s a lot easier with distilled spirits than it is with wine or beer to choose the right category, because there are generally clearer distinctions.” As liquor makers expand past the standard boundaries, however, it can be difficult to make the right call.
“Choosing your category is difficult if you make unconventional spirits,” adds Finan. “For example, you may have bourbon that is finished in a wine barrel. It certainly doesn’t fall into the ’Flavored Whiskey’ category to compete against bourbons with maple or apple flavoring added, but it will taste out of place in the traditional bourbon category.”
Here is just a sampling of Buffalo-area distilleries earning accolades from across the state and the country.
Lockhouse photo by Sara Heidinger Photography
Distillery: Lockhouse Distillery
Competition: 2014 American Distilling Institute Spirit Competition
Award: Gold Medal/Best of Category, Wine Grape-Based Vodka
“It’s really nice to get the input, especially in competitions like ADI, because they’re judged by industry peers” who aren’t biased, says Muscato. He appreciates that, not only does the organization provide awards, but also feedback via judging forms. “Knowing that we’re doing something right, or that we’re on the right path conceptually, is really valuable.”
Tommyrotter/Five&20 photo by Josh Flanigan
Distillery: Tommyrotter Distillery
Competition: 2016 New York World Wine & Spirits Competition
Award: Double Gold Medal and Best In Show, Cask Strength Bourbon-Barrel Gin
To win a double gold medal at the New York World Wine & Spirits Competition, a spirit has to receive ninety-five points or more from every judge; those winners then go on to compete for Best in Show. Finan knew he had a winning spirit going into the contest. “It’s a one-of-a-kind spirit and completely unique tasting,” he says. “The barrel-aged gin combines all of the familiarity and balance of our American Gin and adds an extra layer of dimension through aging in a brand new white American oak barrel.” In notes, one judge went so far as to call the gin, “the most complex spirit I’ve ever tasted.”
Distillery: Five and 20 Spirits and Brewing
Competition: 2016 New York Wine & Food Classic
Awards: Gold Medal Bourbon, Gold Medal Rye Whiskey
The New York Wine & Food Classic began judging spirits about ten years ago as the segment continued to grow—thanks in part to their use of New York agricultural products. Jim Trezise, former president of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation that sponsors the Classic, says the competition is judged by experts ranging from restaurateurs to retailers, to “ensure multiple perspectives.” The judges rate the spirits on criteria including appearance, aroma, taste, aftertaste, and balance. “It has been interesting and encouraging to see how the quality of these products, and of our wines, has consistently improved over the years,” says Trezise. “Five and 20 is a particularly interesting operation, as they also produce wines and beers—a beverage conglomerate—and they’re all very good.”
Five and 20 Spirits and Brewing also won the Silver Medal Rye Whiskey in the 2017 New York Food & Wine Classic.
Black Button photo by kc kratt
Distillery: Black Button Distilling
Competition: 2016 New York Wine & Food Classic
Award: Double Gold Medal, Bespoke Bourbon Cream
Competition: 2016 New York International Spirits Competition
Award: New York Liqueur Distillery of the Year
Rochester’s Black Button Distilling, which recently set up a tasting room on Swan Street, earned the distinction of New York Liqueur Distillery of the Year at the 2016 NY International Spirits Competition. Adam Levy, founder of the NYISC, says, “We are the only international competition .... where all the judges are real trade buyers judging the liquid by its category and actual price.” It’s not the kind of competition where everyone who enters wins a prize; on average, less than forty percent do. Levy notes that Black Button stood out in “the overall price-to-quality ratio.”
Nick Guy writes for the New York Times, Wirecutter, and other outlets.