By Dan Miller
Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Just last Friday, Whiskey Acres Distilling Company was making plans to expand its DeKalb, Illinois-based and award-winning spirits business to Nebraska. But the rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic swept those plans aside.
Only a few days later, Whiskey Acres President and CEO Jamie Walter is preparing his production line to produce hand sanitizer instead. Hand sanitizer has disappeared from retail store shelves and is in short supply in doctors' offices and even hospitals. Walter believes the distillery that produces buckets of alcohol could help stem the shortage.
Walter saw the family's business literally drying up by the hour. Its 4,000-square-foot bar and retail space closed a week ago. Whiskey Acres' products were also sold in restaurants, all now closed in Illinois. The Nebraska plans are on hold. "We're down to grocery and liquor stores," Walter said. "A significant piece of our revenue has dried up."
Whiskey Acres, paired with a commercial, 2,000-acre grain farm, produces internationally recognized bourbons, rye and vodka sold in Illinois and Wisconsin. It also produces an artisan series of bourbon from an imaginative stock of ingredients including blue popcorn, Oaxacan heirloom corn and someday, perhaps, sweetcorn. The family has been farming about 60 miles west of Chicago since the Great Depression.
The distillery opened in 2014 as a way to diversify the farm, which once included seed sales and a crop insurance business. The distillery has since become the largest piece of the total business. "We were quickly making a name for ourselves in this space," Walter said.
Walter is also concerned about his employees. Whiskey Acres has five full-time employees and 15 part-timers. He is loyal to them, but they also represent a skill base he does not want to lose. But employed at what? A production line that had been running two shifts seven days per week is now a single shift, Monday through Friday.
The sanitizer idea came up a couple of weeks ago. Now, it's about to happen if Walter can secure the bottles and pumps. Sanitizer is made from ethanol, glycerol and hydrogen peroxide. Water will come from Whiskey Acres' limestone well. Walter has not been able to secure aloe vera, an ingredient used to make a gel form of hand sanitizer, so the product will be a spray.
"We want to do this partially to fill a need. There really is a shortage," Walter said. "It has some marketing and PR value, too. But third, and this is a surprise to me, it's become important to our employees. They want to contribute."
OTHER DISTILLERIES JOIN CORONAVIRUS FIGHT
Other distilleries around the U.S. also are putting their spirits to work to help fill the shortage of hand sanitizers, according to the Associated Press. Green Mountain Distillers in Morrisville, Vermont, is giving away a hand sanitizing solution, as is Durham Distillery in Durham, North Carolina. "We wanted to do something that would be as positive as possible," Harold Faircloth, an owner of Green Mountain Distillers, told the Associated Press.
Eight Oaks Farm Distillery in New Tripoli, Pennsylvania, is another distillery entering the highly in-demand world of hand sanitizers. Logan Snyder, co-founder and director for distillery operations said the work contributes to the supply of a hard-to-find item and keeps employees employed.
Eight Oaks is a veteran-owned, family-run craft distillery on 300 acres located in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley, about 70 miles north of Philadelphia. The corn, wheat, rye and barley produced there are routed through the distillery. The distillery sells bourbon, rye whiskey, rum, vodka, gin and apple jack.
Bottles for the hand sanitizer were one challenge for Eight Oaks Farm. The former owner of a soap store heard of the distillery's efforts and donated 7,500 8-ounce and 2-ounce bottles, Snyder explained, as another truck full of bottles pulled into the distillery's drive.
Snyder said Eight Oaks Farm's intention is to start distribution locally and then move out regionally. Children's Hospital of Philadelphia will be one of the first recipients. "I was surprised it was short of sanitizer," Snyder said.
Their asking price? Make a free-will donation. You can make a donation to the Eight Oaks Hand Sanitizer Project at: www.eightoaksdistillery.com.
"We're upset with the hoarders, so we are doing what we can do, maybe push prices down," Snyder said. With enough bottles and pumps, Eight Oaks can produce several thousand bottles per week. The sanitizer recipe is based on one published by the World Health Organization. "But time is of the essence," Snyder said. "From conception to the bottling line, we've done 500 bottles in three days."
Dan Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter @DMillerPF
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