Whiskey Reviews: Black Button Empire Rye & Pre-Prohibition Style Straight Bourbon

Editor’s Note: These whiskeys were provided to us as review samples by Black Button Distilling. This in no way, per our editorial policiesinfluenced the final outcome of this review. It should also be noted that by clicking the buy links in this article our site receives a small referral payment which helps to support, but not influence, our editorial and other costs.

December 5, 2020 marked the eighty seventh anniversary of the ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment of the United States Constitution. Constitutional amendments are understandably rare, however this particular occasion was especially unique in that it was the first and only time that one amendment was implemented to repeal another.

Thirteen years earlier was the Eighteenth Amendment, which banned the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors in the United States and ushered in the age of Prohibition. While there were a few distilleries that were given special license to continue operating for medicinal reasons, the vast majority of alcohol producers were shuttered. With great cause to celebrate, the date of December 5 has become known as “Repeal Day”, and is usually observed with great appreciation for the libations we have since been able to enjoy.

Due to the fact that the profession of bartending had basically been outlawed, the day is also often referred to as “The Bartender’s Holiday” and special promotions are often put on in their establishments to commemorate the event that often involve flapper dresses and the Charleston.

For this past 2020, however, the day came and went without much fanfare. In the midst of a global pandemic, it is certainly understandable that certain occasions to be social and celebrate are not the safest and most responsible things to do right now. And as we see many bars and restaurants have been forced to close as well as many bartenders once again out of work, I look forward to the celebrations acknowledging our return to being behind the stick. 

Until that day, we are fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from the past and see how far we have come. Black Button Distilling in Rochester New York may have  only been around since 2012, but they acknowledge the past and the history of the distilling in their state with their whiskeys.

As well as being the first grain to glass distillery to operate in Rochester since prohibition, they are one of the founders of the Empire Rye Whiskey Association. The idea behind the Association is to establish a special whiskey category for the state of New York, set standards, and to be an homage to New York State’s pre-Prohibition rye whiskey making history.

Let us take a look at two of their expressions.

Black Button Empire Rye & Pre-Prohibition Style Straight Bourbon

Black Button Empire Rye & Pre-Prohibition Style Straight Bourbon (image via Jason Marshall/The Whiskey Wash)

Tasting Notes: Black Button Empire Rye 

Vital Stats: 84 proof (42% ABV). Mash Bill-95% Rye, 5% Malted Barley and 100% NY made from grain to glass. Aged at least two years. Average price $69/ 750ml.

Appearance: Dark and rich with a golden amber color. A swirl of the glass forms slow forming legs.

Nose: The initial aroma gives the impression of bubblegum, as if you just open a pack of baseball cards, and then gives way to cherry and damp earth.

Palate: Some spice, then buttery, with a cooling mint sensation. Viscous mouth-feel as evident by the legs in the glass.

Final Thoughts: Although the rye adheres to Empire Rye Association standards, the mash bill follows the style of a Monongahela rye, and is not as spicy upfront as anticipated. A pleasant drink, but what makes it distinct is the prominent earthy tone, which makes me want to re-examine other Empire Ryes.

Score: 3.5/5

Tasting Notes: Black Button Pre-Prohibition Style Bourbon

Vital Stats: 92 proof (46% ABV). Mash Bill-80% Corn, 10% Rye, 10% Malted Barley. Aged a minimum of four years. Only available in the distillery tasting room. Only 400 bottles were made.

Appearance: Light gold to copper in color. Narrow legs form on the glass.

Nose: Orange/citrus to begin, then met with walnut, and a breakfast cereal aroma.

Palate: Hearty and sweet with a long caramel finish. Notes of tobacco and an earthy tone as it trails off.

Score: 3.5/5

Final Thoughts: The Pre-Prohibition Bourbon is said to be “based on a recipe that harkens back to the early days of America’s Native Spirit”. It is not stated where that recipe is from, but it is definitely distinct from their other Four-Grain Bourbon recipe. The very high corn content is more reminiscent of a Tennessee whiskey than a traditional bourbon. It also has a faint earthy tone that is distinctive. 


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