New Culinary Spots Get Personal in Upstate New York

Gin, moonshine, bourbon and vodka from Black Button Distilling

Gin, moonshine, bourbon and vodka from Black Button Distilling. Credit: Jason Barrett, Black Button

Upstate New York’s diverse Finger Lakes region is known for its extensive wine production, but it’s also an emerging hotbed of culinary talent, craft breweries, and distilleries.

But the thing that stood out the most to me when first visited was a distinctive approach to culinary creation that draws inspiration from personal and local historical details.

Prison City Pub and Brewery

Believe it or not, this new eatery is the only brewpub in Cayuga County (with a population of almost 80,000).

A giant BEER sign on the back wall makes it clear what you’re here to do. Credit: Nicola Brown

A giant BEER sign on the back wall makes it clear what you’re here to do. Credit: Nicola Brown

The brewpub was named for the city’s maximum security prison, which was the site of the first execution by electric chair in 1890 and is one of the oldest functioning prisons in the United States. Thankfully its bleak namesake doesn’t cloud the buoyant atmosphere.

Order a flight of four and let your server choose the brews. Opt for two in-house and two local brews for a well-rounded sample of the region’s best craft beer.

Pork belly tacos and a flight of four local brews. Credit: Nicola Brown

The brewpub features recycled metal and wood furnishings created by local craftspeople for an elegant industrial feel that is airy for lunch and cozy for dinner.

But no matter what time of day it is, you’d be foolish not to have the pork belly tacos: juicy, crispy and a perfect pair for the beer. I could have stayed here all day.

Café Sol

I was sceptical at first about this unremarkable looking restaurant at the foot of Bristol Mountain in Canandaigua. In the middle of February the name seemed at odds with my surroundings, but as soon as we ordered my hesitation dissipated instantly.

A Scandinavian style fireplace is a welcome addition in the winter. Credit: Nicola Brown

A Scandinavian style fireplace is a welcome addition in the winter. Credit: Nicola Brown

Café Sol is the kind of local family-run place that stays a secret forever, passed on only by word of mouth.  Co-owner Eivind grew up in Norway, spent time in Brantford, Ontario, has cross-country skied to both poles and now runs Café Sol in New York. He’s got more than a few stories to tell. Chef and co-owner Julie might be one of the friendliest people I’ve ever met, and her award-winning mushroom soup is divine.

If you’ve got room for dessert after all that, ask what the day’s dessert menu has in store – you won’t be disappointed.

Julie’s spicy chocolate brownie comes in gargantuan portions. Credit: Nicola Brown

Julie’s spicy chocolate brownie comes in gargantuan portions. Credit: Nicola Brown

There is a homemade quality to the food here: humble, passionate and authentic. Stick around long enough and you might get to meet the café dog, who doesn’t hide his own enthusiasm for the food, either.

Black Button Distilling

This grain-to-glass craft distillery was one of my favourite stops in New York, and I have a bottle of their outstanding gin on my shelf to prove it.

Like Prison City Pub and Brewery, Black Button Distilling is a name with a past. Upon discovering that he was colour blind, owner Jason realized he couldn’t follow in his parents’ footsteps to take over their successful button factory. The family joked that if he did they’d have to stick to making only black buttons.

Luckily for New Yorkers, Jason diverged and opened a distillery instead.

Black Button’s charred American white oak barrel-aged bourbon. Credit: Nicola Brown

Black Button’s charred American white oak barrel-aged bourbon. Credit: Nicola Brown

Where his methods honour time-tested traditions in distilling, producing fine bourbon and powerful moonshine, Black Button’s gin forges a new path entirely. It practically knocked me off my feet, and not just because of the alcohol content.

The citrus-forward gin exudes more orange, cinnamon and cardamom than the expected juniper, and has a complex, fresh botanical flavour. I never thought I could drink a gin straight before I met Jason at Black Button.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say this exceptional small batch distillery is worth the drive to Rochester alone. Make sure to leave ample room in your suitcase.

Read between the state lines

For Canadians, Upstate New York can get forgotten in favour of New York City. But what you won’t find in the Big Apple’s Michelin-starred restaurants and luxury hotels is that personal touch that leaves a lasting memory.

Personal stories and local history make Upstate New York a surprisingly welcoming place that, unlike NYC, you can drive to in a day.

For more information about what to see and do in Upstate New York check out www.awelcomesurprise.com

The writer was a guest of A Welcome Surprise. The tourism board did not review or approve this post.

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