Over the past decade, interest in craft cocktails and small-batch spirits has been a boon to the beverage sector and led to a wave of new distilleries. Even though many of these companies benefit from a retail arm, they have, like restaurants, had to rethink their business model and production.
In March, when COVID-19 first gripped the U.S., an unconventional opportunity presented itself. Demand for hand sanitizers exceeded supply, and distilleries quickly realized they could be part of the solution.
“We already had a lot of the equipment needed to make hand sanitizer, so we just gathered the rest of the equipment that we needed and began our journey into the world of hand sanitizer,” says Tyler Powell, marketing director for The Unknown Brewing Co. in Charlotte, North Carolina. “[Owner] Brad Shell really wanted to accomplish two things during this pandemic: He wanted to find a way to give back to our community, and he wanted to find a way to keep our employees employed.”
Although breweries aren’t usually outfitted with the supplies needed to make sanitizer, The Unknown had been developing a side distillery operation, The Wood & Grain Project, for about two years with its first product, a strawberry gin, slated to debut this summer. The team started with a batch of 700 hand sanitizers and as of mid-May had produced 13,500. The Unknown donated 1,000 to Atrium Health, the largest healthcare system in Charlotte. It also supplied local businesses with the product and hosted its own pop-up farmers market with hand sanitizer among the items for purchase.
Like The Unknown, many of the beverage producers that have pivoted to hand sanitizer are taking a multi-pronged approach in disseminating the product to hospitals and healthcare systems, consumers, and other businesses. Striking the right balance between donations and sales is a key consideration in keeping the operation financially sustainable.
“As the pandemic hit, we saw that our brewpub/restaurant business was going to take a huge hit. In an effort to keep our doors open, we were able to pivot our distillery portion of the business to sell hand sanitizer,” says Amelia Emr, head of operations for The Vanguard Brewpub & Distillery in Hampton, Virginia. “We had always planned to maintain a balance between bulk healthcare orders and consumer sales. We wanted to make sure we had enough hand sanitizer to sell through the restaurant, therefore keeping some restaurant employee jobs in place.”
Being both a brewpub and a distillery also helped The Vanguard adapt to regulations and dine-in bans brought on by the pandemic. Even though its patio didn’t reopen until mid-May and its dining room until early June, The Vanguard continued selling its spirits, beers, and pub fare (via takeout) throughout the crisis. Having so many irons in the fire meant it could retain a relatively robust workforce while also pulling from multiple revenue streams.
It’s a somewhat similar situation for The Unknown Brewing Co. While the nascent distillery manufactured hand sanitizer, the brewery continued to make and sell beer. The company’s on-site food truck, Passport Dough & Co., which specializes in internationally inspired pizzas, was well-situated to continue taking orders, even when regulations were especially tight.
“Our whole business model had to be reformed because of the pandemic. We went from being a taproom that put on a lot of events … to being to-go only and trying to cater to our customers in a more convenient way,” says Powell, referencing the company’s annual chili cook-offs and a barbecue “smoke-offs,” the second of which had been slated for April before COVID-19 struck. “We always love trying different things and seeing what we can do. This just happened to be an opportunity,” he adds.
Distilling antibacterial products might not be as glamorous as distilling spirits, but, true to foodservice’s creative spirit, operators have found ways to put their own spin on it. The Unknown opted for distinctive branding; it labeled the 4-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer with the name Good Hands and a thumbs-up logo.
In Harvard, Illinois, Rush Creek Distilling packages its hand sanitizer in 375-milliliter twist-cap clear bottles and smaller pop-tops that resemble travel toiletries. The proprietary label includes the company logo (complete with a freshwater fish) and the refrain, “Proudly made to help our community stay healthy in a time of need. Keep your spirits up.”
“Part of the reason we’re doing it is the sooner our nation gets under control and healthy and this epidemic turns a corner, the sooner life goes back to normal,” says co-owner Mark Stricker.
To create the antibacterial solution, Rush Creek begins with a grain-neutral spirit, which is the same base ingredient for many clear spirits, but that’s where the similarities end. The hand sanitizer clocks in at 190 proof (95 percent alcohol) whereas Rush Creek’s whiskey, gin, and vodka selection hovers around 80 proof and 40 percent ABV. To produce in mass volumes, the distillery uses a lower quality grain-neutral spirit than it does for its libations. Isopropyl, glycerin, distilled water, and hydrogen peroxide are also added into the mix.
The coronavirus restrictions have been especially difficult for Rush Creek Distilling. Unlike The Unknown and The Vanguard, it doesn’t have a foodservice component to fall back on. Plus, Harvard is lumped into the same zone as Chicago for the state’s phase-in plan, even though it’s an hour and a half northwest of the city. Meanwhile Wisconsin businesses less than 10 miles north were permitted to reopen in May, while Rush Creek had to keep its doors closed.
Although distilling antibacterial hand sanitizer may not be the ideal, Stricker and his team are grateful for the work—no matter how unorthodox. Plus, he posits that the whole experience could strengthen his sense of smell. By striving to make a neutral and near-odorless product, he’s hyper-tuned his nose.
“It’s definitely not as enjoyable because you’re not sampling the product, but we know it’s for a cause, and it helps us keep our doors open,” Stricker says. “I’ve become a connoisseur of hand sanitizers. … I think my sense of smell has gotten better.”