Buffalo continues to reclaim the grandeur of its past in ways both accessible and exciting—a benefit to its residents and an invitation to those drawn to the western New York city and its surrounding region. No example carries quite as many moving parts as The Barrel Factory, a 115-year-old factory of brick and wood in the historic Old First Ward neighborhood. Much can be said of the destination’s open arms to the public, from kayak rentals housed within to a restaurant with seasonal outdoor seating and a full-blown events schedule. At the heart, however, is the Lakeward Spirits distillery and tasting room. An independent distiller, Lakeward produces four superb spirits, two of which are gin variations. And while they’re presently only available around the city, others should be clamoring to get their hands on a bottle.
The brains behind the operation, Steve Bystran is the president and co-owner of Lakeward, and a co-owner and champion of the Barrel Factory itself. Lakeward is quite the family business: his wife is the director of retail, his son is the distiller. Even his son-in-law takes part, as their compliance lawyer (integral in the changing distillery/brewery landscape). “When we bought this place,” Bystran explains to CH, “the only things that were here were the beams and brick walls. Everything else we built.” Much of the factory’s renovation was done with repurposed material and the result is an environment that defies placement in a specific period of time. There’s a cozy warmth set in opposition to the industrial backdrop. Bystran’s vision extends beyond his own spirits brand. “The ultimate goal is to have a consortium of alcohol producers here. We’ve got a brewer on the far end of the building. There’s a winery up north planning their cidery center here,” he says. With the Barrel Factory being a social destination replete with a bar, brands have a direct line to interested consumers.
Bystran doesn’t cut corners with his product. “It’s produced using 100% locally-grown malted wheat, barley and rye,” he continues, addressing the gin and vodka. The primary component for rum is sugar, and neither sugar nor molasses are produced in the region but he carefully selected his source material. Lakeward is trying to create a Buffalo-specific yeast strain as well, which Bystran likens to their own proprietary terroir. Aside from one machine from Italy, all of their equipment is American-made, hailing from Missouri and Iowa. His fermenters were built in Idaho. All of the copper on-site comes from Washington state. And many of these machines have been named after his family members.
Lakewards production incorporates two stills, each imparts its own set of flavors. “We have an old-style pot still, which is intentionally inefficient because you want residual flavors to come out of there,” he explains. “The other, it’s a copper column still, which is just about getting alcohol out of the process. It’s called a gatling still and ours it the only type like it in the world.” Lakeward’s portfolio has clear motivation. “Everybody starts out with vodka because you can make it in a couple of weeks,” Bystran says. “I can make gin in about three weeks. We can produce a white rum in weeks, as well. And I like rum.” With barrels sourced from Woodford Reserve, Lakeward is presently aging rum to release a dark expression in the future. The white rum on the shelves now is definitely a favorite. As Bystran concludes, “Our rum is velvet on the tongue. It’s 80 proof but you don’t know you’re drinking alcohol.”
With the help of the Eerie County Industrial Development Agency, Bystran found
Pressure Drop Brewing. They too moved into the Barrel Factory (moving their operation from Sacramento). The bar up front isn’t a tasting room for them, but their beer is served—Bystran buys it from them to sell, more or less, for legal reasons. Each day though, both the distillery and brewery’s delectable scents vie for the attention. The result is a sensory experience that locals and those visiting Buffalo should enjoy.
First, third and fourth images courtesy of Lakeward Spirits, second image by David Graver, last image courtesy of Pressure Drop Brewing