Forget bourbon and gin — in the era of coronavirus, some Illinois distilleries (and even some breweries) go all in on hand sanitizer
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Forget bourbon and gin — in the era of coronavirus, some Illinois distilleries (and even some breweries) go all in on hand sanitizer

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This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2—also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab.

When its first bottles of hand sanitizer left Koval distillery Monday afternoon, a pivot unimaginable even a month ago became complete: from high-end spirits producer to global health crisis warrior.

Whiskey-filled oak barrels continue to age in Koval’s 46,000-square-foot facility in the Ravenswood section of Chicago, but the 12-year-old distillery has transformed itself in a matter of days into, of all things, a hand sanitizer manufacturer.

As the COVID-19 pandemic accelerates, Koval is one of at least four distilleries in the Chicago area, and dozens nationally, to begin hand sanitizer production in a bid not only to be an upright corporate citizen, but perhaps to carve a new revenue stream that keeps a struggling business afloat.

Since announcing its plans to donate production to first responders, nursing homes and food pantries among other destinations, Koval has raked in nearly $40,000 in donations to underwrite production.

“We’ve turned our business upside down,” Koval co-founder Sonat Birnecker Hart said. “For us this is a kind of war effort. We’re luckily in a position to have a distillery that can manufacture something really needed for those fighting on the front line.”

The key ingredient is something distilleries make routinely: neutral grain spirit, which is essentially vodka (though in this case, it’s an unusually high-proof vodka). Combined with glycerin and hydrogen peroxide, it becomes hand sanitizer.

Koval is among dozens of alcohol businesses both large and small to embrace hand sanitizer production amid the pandemic. In the Chicago area, distilleries including Maplewood Brewery & Distillery, 28 Mile Vodka & Distillery of Highwood and Copper Fiddle Distillery of Lake Zurich also have begun production.

So have several major players. Tito’s Handmade Vodka announced plans to produce 24 tons of sanitizer; Diageo, the maker of Johnnie Walker and Smirnoff, said it would donate more than 500,000 gallons of neutral grain spirit to be used in the production of 8 million bottles of hand sanitizer; and Chicago-based Beam Suntory said it is “currently fast-tracking a project to produce hand sanitizer.”

The nation’s largest beer company, Anheuser-Busch, has said it would make hand sanitizer at its breweries in Baldwinsville, New York, and in the Van Nuys area of Los Angeles to be distributed by the American Red Cross and other organizations. Also, Joe Gregor, a chemical engineer by trade and the founder of Church Street Brewing in Itasca, made a batch of hand sanitizer that the brewery has donated to west suburban first responders and given to customers as incentive to buy its beer.

Birnecker Hart said Koval began exploring hand sanitizer production even before the Food and Drug Administration and Alcohol Tobacco and Tax Trade Bureau relaxed rules last week to allow production. Koval’s European business ground to a halt weeks ago, which got Birnecker Hart and her husband, Robert, who is Koval’s co-founder and master distiller, thinking about the implications of a major health crisis in the United States.

“We were hoping and anticipating it would become legal and the minute it did, we began shifting,” Birnecker Hart said.

Several tons of grain bought with the intention of making whiskey are being repurposed for hand sanitizer while an online fundraiser has raised nearly $25,000 in five days. Chicago law firm Edelson PC kicked in another $15,000, Birnecker Hart said.

Koval has converted a long-since-outgrown, six-head bottling line to fill bottles of various sizes, from 6 ounces to one gallon. Though the early production will be donated, Birnecker Hart said the business may eventually sell hand sanitizer to the public. Through Monday, Koval had made 94 gallons, all of which will be donated.

It isn’t branded heavily as a Koval product -- that’s in the fine print on the side of the bottle -- but it does include a prominent quote from Mr. Rogers: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

“It’s possible we’ll sell it -- and need to sell it,” Birnecker Hart said. “We have to keep the lights on and if it means we’re focused on only selling hand sanitizer for the next few months, maybe that what it means.”

Some alcohol producers, especially breweries, have seen bumps in sales as sheltering customers stock up and stay home. But Koval’s product is too niche -- $40 to $50 premium bottles of whiskey and gin -- to see such a boost.

Crossed with the fact that 30% of its sales are in Europe and Asia, Koval is left searching for new revenue streams. It has furloughed its European staff and its part-time workers in Chicago. It hopes not to have to furlough its full-time employees in Chicago, and hand sanitizer production could keep that from happening, Birnecker Hart said.

Chicago breweries are pitching in by donating beer that can be fermented into high-proof neutral grain spirit, including 16 kegs of older and slower-selling beers from Evanston’s Temperance Brewing and out-of-code kegs from Metropolitan Brewing.

In Chicago, Maplewood Brewery & Distillery has made “a small amount” of sanitizer, said co-founder Ari Megalis, which will be distributed next week to first responders, nursing homes, delivery drivers and customers, among others.

In the north suburbs, Copper Fiddle Distillery in Lake Zurich was pressed into hand sanitizer production by its State Senator, Dan McConchie. When Lake County first responders were unable to get sanitizer, he called the distillery to step up, said Copper Fiddle co-founder Andrew Macker.

The 7-year-old distillery turned 45 cases of rum it had planned to sell to make 20 gallons of neutral grain spirit that the first responders turned into 100 bottles of sanitizer.

It was a significant amount of product to donate, but Macker said, "It was so fast and there was such urgency, it was a no brainer.”

Copper Fiddle is making another batch, also to donate, but Macker doesn’t see a long-term future in sanitizer.

"We’re a small little distillery so if we can supply our first responders, that’ll probably as much as we can do,” he said.

28 Mile Vodka & Distillery, however, sees a potential future in its new business. The Highwood distillery, which opened in June, temporarily closed and furloughed its 10 employees after Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s March 15 shutdown order for bars and restaurants to dine-in business. Days later, 28 Mile began making sanitizer.

“We completely changed our entire operation,” 28 Mile co-founder Eric Falberg said.

28 Mile has produced nearly 1,000 gallons of sanitizer, all of which has been donated to more than a dozen north suburban law enforcement agencies, Falberg said. 28 Mile plans to start distilling around the clock to boost production, and eventually wants to sell its sanitizer at grocery and drug stores.

“If we come out on the other side and can produce this right and well, we might have a new part to our business,” he said.

Falberg is even hoping to bring back his furloughed staff, albeit with one significant change: “They’ll be workers now instead of bartenders.”

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