Nickel City Gritty: Buffalo Distilling Company
As a lot of you may know, I share a studio space with my friend Heather Sargent of Black Bird Photography. Our studio is located in the Larkin District in Buffalo. This area is definitely up and coming, housing some incredible bars and restaurants around Larkinville. Since we moved into our studio, we've been talking about collaborating on a post together. Heather came to me a few weeks ago and said that she has two guys who would be perfect for my next Nickel City Gritty interview. Of course, I trust her to only hang with the most interesting of folks, so I went full steam ahead and said let's do it.
May I present to you Frank Weber and Roy Bakos of Buffalo Distilling Company. Buffalo Distilling Co. is located right up the street from our studio on Seneca Street in the Larkin District. Frank and Roy are a dynamic duo. They both made us feel so warm and welcome, like we've been friends for ages even though we just met. Their sassy and fun personalities are prevalent, not only in the name of their product, One Foot Cock, but also in the tongue-in-cheek names of some of their cocktails.
One of the things that really stood out to me during our interview session was the sense of pride and passion that both Frank and Roy have for the business. Frank is the Co-Founder and Distiller, and he was constantly checking on the product that he was distilling while we were there. He has a lot of pride about where he's from and all of the hard work that it took to get the Buffalo Distilling Co. to where it is today. Roy is the Director of Hospitalities & Pleasures, and he is the embodiment of that description. He understands people and he wants to make sure that every person that steps foot inside that building is taken care of and happier leaving than when they walked in.
It was an honor to speak to these two gentlemen, and an even bigger honor to have my lovely studio mate Heather snap all of these photos! Please enjoy their playlists while you read through their interview. Frank was a little bit of an overachiever and provided more than the ten songs that I asked for, but just think of that as an added bonus.
This is Nickel City Gritty, and this is Frank & Roy of Buffalo Distilling Company.
Tell me how Buffalo Distilling Company got started.
Frank: Mid 2000's, a friend of the family came up from North Carolina with a homemade pot still and it ended up in my garage in Bennington, New York. We were playing around with it for a few years and it was just a hobby. One of my current business partners came over frequently when were doing this and said, "Hey, you know we should figure out how to do this legally." So I had a spot to do it and he found a real still, and the third partner, who is my cousin, is a steamfitter. Distilling is about heating and cooling and he has an HVAC steamfitter background, so he was able to design the system and Andy was going to dive into the legal paperwork and that's kind of how it all came to fruition. We started as a company in 2012 and Buffalo Distilling was the company name. One Foot Cock came a little bit later. Originally we wanted to have it be Buffalo-centric. We wanted to have Buffalo Bourbon, Buffalo Vodka, Buffalo Rye, and when you apply, you go on the government website to submit the name. We submitted Buffalo Bourbon and it wasn't long after that we received a few letters from a distillery in Kentucky called Buffalo Trace. They were threatening with legal action. We saved all the letters. They actually got pretty animated! We didn't try to piss them off too much. So, I tell this story because it leads into One Foot Cock. The business moved from my garage to a barn which was behind my house. It was a very rural setting on a farm, literally a dirt road. On the barn was a decorative rooster that only had one leg. That's where the brand comes from. We joked around about it all the time and when you're distilling, even before it became a business, and even now, there's an energy that comes out of it and you joke around and you're having fun and you're creating spirits and what is the point of spirits and drinking if you're not having fun? So the name goes into having fun.
Roy: We've only had one complaint about it so far! It was in our tasting room and it was our fourth or fifth week that we were open, and an older woman walks up to me, and we're super busy. She walks up to me and says, "One of the guys over there says you're the manager!" and I was like, "Yes, I'm the Director of Hospitality and Pleasures, how can I help you?" She was like, "Cock?!?" And I was like, "Yeah!" and started telling her the story about the barn and she says, "Really? Cock? On everything?" So I had a bunch of regulars sitting at the bar where I was making drinks and I look over and I'm like, "Ma'am, did you think we meant penis? You thought we meant penis?" And she turns bright red and I couldn't keep a straight face. She thought it was hysterical and ended up buying two bottles of vodka and every time she's in town she stops in.
F: You know, even now after we've been doing this for a while, if I could change it to the Buffalo brand name, I don't think that I would because this is memorable. It sticks out. We didn't devise a plan to have something that's completely crazy and taboo. I was a little on the fence about it, but my dad and business partner pushed for it.
R: Frank is sort of the conservative of the group.
F: I wouldn't say I'm conservative.
R: Okay, so maybe not conservative, but slightly more proper and with a little bit more decorum than the rest of us.
F: I just don't like to hit people right over the head with things.
R: That's it. Frank will walk in and we'll be in a discussion and throwing all these names out for cocktails, and he'll be like, "Guys, we can't just beat everybody over the head with the cock all the time."
F: It is a part of our roots, I'm from the country so the rooster and the barn and the whole thing. And then it gets people's attention when they see it and then when they try it, it's great. The name aside, we spend an extraordinary amount of time on our product. This place is our temple and what we're doing is a lot of work, but it's fun. Sometimes we're here until four in the morning.
R: We all work as a team and we help each other out. A lot of people take shortcuts in how they make booze. Nothing against people who do that, there's an art to it. But one of the things we pride ourselves on is we start with grain. We make our apple brandy once a year because apples are in season once a year. The biggest run of vodka we ever did was a thousand bottle run of vodka. Four thousand pounds of grain. These guys worked for 24 days straight. Fourteen and fifteen hour days. We pride ourselves in what we do, and we hope it translates into our product and even into how the building looks. All of the stuff at the bar was built local. The bar top was a tree that lived on Elmwood Avenue that came down and was planed into the bar top. The tables in the corner were all on the original farm out in Bennington. The stones on the bar were from a cobblestone street in the Fruit Belt that was being dug up for the medical campus renovation. Even the stills are unique to us. As much as we have fun with the cock, we take pride in all of this.
"As Buffalonians, i feel like we all went to war together..."
It's so great to see that amount of passion that you guys have.
F: It's great, and not just being a distillery, but being a business that is a part of the community. Doing what we are all doing together. I don't know, but as Buffalonians, I feel like we all went to war together and now the war is over and we're on the rise. Buffalonians are proud people. Everything that's going on feels so good here. It's magical.
I want you guys to both describe your personal style.
R: Do you want me to describe Frank's and him to describe mine?
If you want to make it spicy!
R: Frank doesn't shy away from the fact that he grew up out in the country. This guy has an aesthetic...if you think this place looks great, you walk into his house and it's unbelievable. When he gets an idea in his head how he wants something to look, how he wants something to taste or how he wants something set up and he just does everything that he possibly can to execute it. We went out to the Philharmonic yesterday and I'm wearing shorts and ski socks, I had a nice button down on, but he's wearing this beautiful tailored wool shirt and a wool cap that he probably paid some little Scottish person to make.
F: It was Bureau. I love them.
R: Frank has such an amazing style. Sometimes you talk about people who have a style or a vision, and they're assholes. Seriously. You tell them they look great and they are like, "Why wouldn't I?" Frank's not like that at all. He'll be like, "Yeah, my hat's Bureau. Can I smoke a chicken with you and give you some of my booze?" And he'll do the dishes and get his hands dirty, too. It's pretty awesome.
F: I'm like that because I've spent a lot of time in the trenches. I spent 20 years of my life going into garbage pits. Literally. I was in industrial hydraulics before this and we would service companies and it wasn't a glamorous job. I think that's where I get the way that we treat people in here. I can appreciate the high-end nice things and I can appreciate going to a hole in the wall the same. I think it's because going and doing work at so many places in my former life, I got really down and dirty. I wore Dickies every day and steel toe boots. But the Professor, he's intellectual, warm-hearted, and don't look into his eyes too long because he'll pull you right in. Roy's style...think of a guy wearing a Hawaiian shirt...he's the guy you'd want to go out with and go to the bar with and have dinner with. He has intellectual conversations that are way over my head but then also makes you feel welcome and not stupid when you don't know what the fuck he's talking about. I would say he has a very inviting style. Right now he's wearing a Hawaiian shirt with a scarf. What would you call that?
R: Look, winter is not gonna hold me down. I've got ski socks on so I can stay warm. I can still wear my shorts. It's like my Key West in winter kind of thing.
F: Key West meets Buffalo!
If you had to describe yourself in five words, what would they be? To make it easier, you can describe each other in five words.
R: Frank would be humble, honest, smart...
R: Tenacious and frisky. Well, I think those words work for both of us!
F: I think they do! Also hardworking.
R: Yes, hardworking. Can we throw that one in there as an extra bonus?
"anybody who I'm interacting with, i want them to be happy."
What is an amazing thing you did that no one was around to witness?
F: I can catch things that almost fall. All the time. If I bump into something or somebody else bumps into something, I'm really good at snatching it before it hits the ground. I have really good reflexes.
R: Mine is going to sound so corny. It happens regularly. It's when I realize that, whether it's somebody I've met through the bar here in this business or one of my students, when I see them get it when we're talking about something. It's like, I know I helped, if it's something that I helped with, whether it be something in class or if I'm explaining something here. I ask questions. Anybody who's good in this business is an interviewer. When somebody comes in and are like, "What do you have?" I ask them, "Well, what do you like? Do you like vodka? Do you like bourbon? Do you want something strong, sweet or spicy?" For me, this business and teaching are almost identical because it's about sharing culture. I share culture when I'm behind the bar and I'm giving people tours and when I'm in the classroom I share culture because I teach writing and English and it's about culture and about how we communicate. So when I have that interaction with somebody and then I ask them the question and I put something in a glass or I teach them something and get to read the final paper but when I see them take that sip and I see them smile and they got it, I'm like, "I fuckin' got it. I was right! I was correct!" Even when it's wrong, I can instantly fix it. That, to me, is amazing and it's a gift and it's like looking at the world like I'm five. Anybody who I'm interacting with, I want them to be happy.
F: That's a way better answer than mine.
R: Look, catching things is a great skill! I was going to say something like, "Oh, my cat gets to see me dance naked all the time." I'm an awesome naked dancer. Not a lot of people get to see me naked dance!
What is your spirit animal?
F: It's probably a dog for me, because I'm kind of a biter. *laughs* My mom always tells this story about how I got kicked out of my kindergarten class for biting somebody.
So you're basically a werewolf.
F: Yeah, and I like being out late. And sometimes I like to sleep.
R: A dolphin would be mine, I think.
F: Looks like you got a new nickname tomorrow! The Dolphin...
R: Yes, a dolphin. They're just super fucking cool and I think they always sorta look happy even if they're pissed off. You'll see a video about 18 dolphins fighting off a great white shark and they're smiling while they do it and they are having such an awesome time! They're smart and they can be easily trainable but they also can just say fuck it and go off and do their own thing. They're playful. At the end of the day, they're playful animals. I love cats, too. Part of the reason why I love cats is that 95% of the time they are like, "Fuck you." You have to work to get a cat to like you. Look, if I were a dolphin, I'm sure that I would have pet cats. I'd have cat friends. I would take cats from an island to the mainland. I'd go fishing and toss the fish to the cats. All dolphins want to do is swim around and jump in wakes.
What would a mirror opposite of yourself look like?
R: Mine would be like Mario and Wario. He'd be wearing all matching Hawaiian shirts and shorts instead of clashing Hawaiian shirts and shorts and no scarf. He wouldn't have a beard. I always have a beard or a goatee or a mustache. If I don't, my cheeks get rosy all the time, especially when I have a cocktail, and I look like an alcoholic Campbell's soup kid. I really do! So that's why I have to have facial hair. The evil opposite me would be dressed sort of like me but not fun colors and he'd look like the angry Campbell's soup kid. And he'd want to kill dolphins.
He wouldn't eat the dolphin safe tuna.
R: No, not at all. He'd have to eat the tuna with the dolphin chunks in it.
F: I think mine would be Al Pacino in The Devil's Advocate.
R: Ooooohh nice! That's an awesome answer! See, yours was better than mine on that one. Al Pacino kicks the shit out of evil Wario.
What's on your playlist?
F: That is a phenomenal question, because I ask people that too. First and foremost, Matt Darey. Just great house music. Well, you know what? Matt Darey and Sturgill Simpson, which are polar opposites. Sturgill Simpson, I dare not try to give him a genre...I don't know, psychedelic outlaw new country...new age psychedelic outlaw country. How would you describe him?
R: Ummm...if Waylon Jennings was able to be honest about all of the drugs that he did. If he did DMT and psychedelics instead of cocaine, then he would be Sturgill Simpson. He's a completely honest songwriter and super intellectual.
F: So Sturgill, Matt Darey, and sprinkle in a little bit of Maynard from Tool. The Talking Heads pop up once in a while. Also Beck, Nine Inch Nails. I graduated in '98 so the 90's music is pretty great. All of that alternative goodness. I started getting into electronic music in the 2000's. I like a pretty wide range from Americana to metal to alternative. Anything but what's on WYRK.
R: I love Paul Weller, I love Wilco, I love Sturgill Simpson, Biggie, Lauren Hill, Bjork, Booker T. & the M.G.'s, Ocean Colour Scene, Al Green, Elvis Costello, The Clash...I'm all over the place. It all depends on my mood.
If you were arrested with no explanation, what would your friends and family assume you did?
R: This is actually easy for me, I think. It'd be one of three things. Driving over 130 miles per hour in my Mini, I like to drive fast, some kind of political protest where I should have known better to shut my mouth and I didn't and took it too far, or something really really dumb like I was drunk on tequila and somebody told me to take my clothes off and hug a police officer or something like that. I love tequila, I just can't get drunk on tequila for some reason. People say booze doesn't make a difference but that's bullshit, it makes a difference for me. The last three times I've been naked in public I've been drunk on tequila. Somebody could just look at me and be like, "See the mayor over there? You should take off your pants and go hug Byron Brown!" Me, drunk on tequila, would be like, "Okay! Hey Byron what's up! It's nice to see you!" "Why don't you have pants on?" "I don't know, I'm drunk on tequila!" It would make sense to me at the time and I'd go to jail. So it would be one of those three things.
F: Disorderly conduct. I could get down with that.
What board game do you hate the most?
F: What's that card game?
R: Cards Against Humanity?
F: Cards Against Humanity. I just...I don't love it.
R: I think it all depends who you play it with. But that's true though...I can't understand.
F: As vulgar and as crass and out there as I like to get, we play it every year on Christmas with whoever is having Christmas with my family and we play it with my grandmother, and it's too much. And she thinks it's hilarious. My dad and I are the only ones that cringe at Christmas when they're playing Cards Against Humanity.
R: I used to love Monopoly as a kid, but I don't love it any more. It takes too long and it's sort of fucking annoying. I wish I could take board games like that and have it be honest. Like the game Life. Have things like where you get cards that are awful. "What do you mean I got a kidney stone? That's awful. That means for the rest of my life I'm going to dribble piss on my leg." Fuck, that's horrible. They should do that!
Is that the game where you have the little car with the pegs?
R: Yeah, you have that little car and you put the little pegs in there and if you perfectly get everybody in the car it's magical. Fuck Life. It's almost like those stick figure families. That's not how it works.
Have you seen that card game that's social media driven? So the cards will say things like, "Post this to Facebook." or "Send this photo to your mom."
R: That's like those ones where people are trying to be honest and it's like, "Make me feel better and go to your camera roll and send me the seventh picture." No one is doing that shit randomly! If you did it's randomly you'd be like, "Nahhhh I can't send that."
I agree, because then it'd be like dick pic after dick pic.
R: Yeah, exactly!
F: I've never taken a dick pic. Is that one of your questions?
That's actually my next question. How many dick pics are in your camera roll.
R: I've never sent a dick pic to anybody and I've only had a dick pic taken of me.
Was that when you got naked with Byron Brown?
R: *laughs* Yes Byron Brown took a dick pic of me. The whole idea of the dick pic...seriously, the whole idea of it. Even if I had the most superstar dick on the planet, if you could interview all three billion women on the planet and let's have them come up with the greatest dick that they could possibly imagine, even if I had that dick, if I had the Ryan Reynolds of dicks, I still wouldn't just send dick pics out. Because its like, does it ever work?! You know, you need to put this dick pic question in your rotation.
Now I'm going to!
R: Because not only can you ask dudes, but you can also ask women if they've ever received one.
F: I like that this can possibly be published.
R: Well, I mean, it's not like I'm gonna be going up for tenure and they'll be like, "You know, we were going to give you tenure, but the dick pic story was a little too much."
What job would you be terrible at?
F: Hmmm...a math teacher.
R: I think I would be a horrible prison guard or a horrible police officer. I would be horrible at it because I'd want to see the good in people and if I didn't get to see the good in people I'd take it home with me and be miserable. I think it'd be funny, but if my job would be the anchor leg of running the 100 meter hurdles of the Olympics, it would be hysterical to watch. I'm 6'1 and I have 28 1/2 inch long legs and so I'd just knock all of the hurdles over. I would suck at that job.
F: I would say anywhere where there's fluorescent light.
So like an office?
F: Yeah. The fluorescent lighting is bad. You can see how dim it is in here. I have a dimmer switch in my closet. Just in case I want a little bit of ambient light coming out of the closet.
Okay, so this is the last question that I always ask everybody. What do you want to be when you grow up?
F: I want to be a rock star.
R: You already are a rock star. So, people ask me what I was like when I was five. And I say that I was smaller and I hadn't read as many books. I want to be a person who can always look at everything in the world with the same sense of wonder that you look at the world when you are five. Whether it be looking at a sunset that you've seen a thousand times or having conversations like this with people, but still having that sense of curiosity. As I keep growing I hope that I keep getting more and more and more.
F: I think you are, man. That's a really great answer.
R: So, I don't have weird body dysmorphia or anything, but I see the world from where I am, and it's like I forget sometimes. I do this with my students. I forget sometimes when I'm walking around the room and I stand in front of your desk and I'm looking over you and I'm like, "Holy fuck I'm this giant person waving my arms and wearing shorts when it's 18 degrees outside screaming about something." I'm a lunatic. If I was sitting there seeing me and it's like trying to see not only how I see myself but how I see the rest of the world.
F: I think you've made me think about my answer a little more. Maybe when I grow up I would like to be able to leave something behind. A legacy that will improve somebody's life. I would like to have something that I built, that when I'm useless, can travel on its own and help people out. That's the ultimate goal, right? Giving back and leaving something for the future.
Thank you so much Frank and Roy for taking part in this crazy little interview series of mine!
You can find the Buffalo Distilling Company at 860 Seneca Street in Buffalo.