Distilling the Fight Against COVID-19
The Henry Ford is committed to collecting artifacts that document the ways businesses demonstrated resourcefulness and ingenuity—both to address people’s needs and to remain sustainable—in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. These bottles of hand sanitizer produced by West Michigan distilleries may be unassuming, but they have big stories to tell about local and national responses to the crisis.
Alcohol-based hand and surface sanitizer is an important tool for fighting the spread of viruses, in addition to hand washing and social distancing. As COVID-19 reached communities across America, hospitals and other healthcare organizations, charities, law enforcement agencies, and the general public began using far more hand sanitizer than ever before. Demand quickly exceeded the available supply.
Distilleries that produced beverage alcohol already had what they needed to make ethyl alcohol, a main ingredient in hand and surface sanitizer. In March 2020, the Food and Drug Administration and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau announced policies that temporarily allowed beverage alcohol producers – with some restrictions – to begin making and distributing sanitizer immediately, tax free. Distilleries nationwide referenced World Health Organization guidelines, surveyed their equipment and supplies, and decided to retool to produce hand sanitizer.
In West Michigan, a hotbed of craft distilling, many distilleries shifted full-time to producing sanitizer or added it to their regular operations. COVID-19 had disrupted business as usual. Food and beverage sales had fallen as Michiganders, following state guidelines, stopped drinking and dining out. Selling hand sanitizer could help a distillery stay afloat—and even generate good press. But making it required additional resources and could limit beverage alcohol production, threatening a distillery’s bottom line. By and large, the choice to produce sanitizer was not about profit. Instead, the decision was about meeting a community need. When distillers heard about sanitizer shortages, they wanted to help. And when local groups and individuals learned that distillers might produce it, they reached out with hopeful requests. These stories from a selection of West Michigan distilleries showcase the resourcefulness, ingenuity, generosity, and care that has defined so many American businesses’ responses to the pandemic.
After the owners of Eastern Kille Distillery (Grand Rapids) closed their tasting room and cocktail bar, they decided to divert extra employee resources and excess production capacity to making hand sanitizer. According to co-founder Steve Vander Pol, the shift wasn’t easy – the distillery had to source unfamiliar ingredients (glycerol and hydrogen peroxide), locate suitable containers, and train staff in safe chemical handling and new production methods. Eastern Kille produced hand sanitizer for sale and partnered with a logistics company to donate thousands of bottles to essential workers. When its supply of raw materials dwindled after about a month of sanitizer production, the distillery returned to making beverage alcohol. Vander Pol expressed pride in the craft distilling industry for continuing “to help fill the gap in hand sanitizer supply.” Looking back on the experience, he remarked, “In a time when everything in the world felt crazy it was very nice to be able to use our business to help, even if it was just a small part of keeping people safe.”
Sanitizer produced by the gallon at Wise Men Distillery (photo courtesy of Wise Men Distiller)
The staff at Wise Men Distillery (Kentwood) overcame similar challenges in retooling operations to produce sanitizer – just as many large companies began seeking new sources for it. Wise Men ramped up production to fill huge orders from national companies, including Amazon, but also to meet a growing need for sanitizer across the state. The distillery donated hundreds of gallons to first responders and frontline workers in surrounding Kent County, and, almost immediately after general manager Tom Borisch learned about devastating floods in Midland County, more than 100 miles away, sent 600 more to support relief efforts there. Speaking with a local TV station, Borisch explained the distillery’s approach: “We’re going gangbusters trying to make as much as possible and trying to honestly sell it at a price where we can just stay open and keep doing it." He also expressed pride in his team and in broader efforts to endure the pandemic, saying, “it’s amazing to see what the world is doing... Everyone’s coming around each other. It’s good stuff.”
The day authorities eased restrictions on sanitizer production, Coppercraft Distillery (Holland) announced plans to donate thousands of gallons of hand sanitizer to organizations in need. The first delivery went to Holland Hospital, where healthcare workers were using four times as much hand sanitizer as usual. Within a few weeks, the distillery had expanded production, both to continue its donation program and for public sale. Coppercraft CEO Brian Mucci saw in the hand sanitizer shortage “an opportunity to step into a need, assist our community, and express our gratitude...” Production manager Shaun McLarty summed up the distillery’s decision for a local TV station, saying, “You can think of a million reasons not to do it – if it’s cost, or time, or labor – but the reason to do it outweighs that significantly."
Hand sanitizer production at Long Road Distillers (photo courtesy of Long Road Distillers)
At Long Road Distillers (Grand Rapids), with a shuttered restaurant and cocktail bar, hand sanitizer offered an alternative way to remain in business – and an opportunity for resourceful collaboration. Beginning with neighboring Mitten Brewing Co., and eventually working with several Michigan breweries, Long Road Distillers turned unused grain – destined to become beer before the pandemic – into hand sanitizer. Among those using its product, Long Road Distillers listed hospitals, nursing homes, grocers, logistics companies, and social service agencies. A video documenting the distillery’s collaborative efforts highlighted donations to the Grand Rapids Police Department and Metro Health Hospital. Reflecting on the partnership, Mitten Brewing Co. cofounder Chris Andrus remarked, “I hope that what we remember from this crisis is not the virus and the pandemic, but the extraordinary efforts that came about because of it.”
The kitchen at Bier Distillery (Comstock Park) had only been open a few weeks when owner John Bierling had to shut its doors to dine-in customers. To help drive food sales during the closure, he shifted from beverage alcohol to hand sanitizer production and began offering a free bottle with every takeout purchase. Soon, large-scale sanitizer orders rolled in from local organizations, and Bier Distillery pushed to meet the unforeseen demand. In a video explaining sanitizer production at the distillery, Bierling reflected on what had begun as a marketing opportunity: “Never in a million years would I have thought I would be making hand sanitizer. But, I like making alcohol – I like the process, I like the science behind it all.” The undertaking allowed him to redirect that passion to help the community. “I can apply all that knowledge and my technique and expertise,” Bierling said, “to making hand sanitizer – and hopefully keeping people safe.”
Like so many American businesses, large and small, these distillers acted nimbly and demonstrated resourcefulness to meet the challenge brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. They refocused skills, equipment, and operations to not only remain in business, but supply their communities with a crucial product.
Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content at The Henry Ford, looks forward to sampling these distillers’ other products someday soon. She thanks Eric Hermann for his enthusiastic and invaluable support of this project.
healthcare, 2020s, 21st century, Michigan, COVID 19 impact, by Saige Jedele, beverages