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Distilleries retool to fight COVID-19

Commitment to community and need spur production of hand sanitizer

Photo: MB Roland Distillery
Photo: MB Roland Distillery
Photo: MB Roland Distillery
Photo: Jeptha Creed Distillery
Photo: Jeptha Creed Distillery
Photo: Dueling Grounds Distillery
Photo: Dueling Grounds Distillery
Photo: Dueling Grounds Distillery
Photo: Dueling Grounds Distillery
Photo: Dueling Grounds Distillery
Photo: Casey Jones Distillery
Photo: Casey Jones Distillery
Photo: Casey Jones Distillery
Photo: Casey Jones Distillery
Photo: Casey Jones Distillery
Photo: Casey Jones Distillery
Photo: Boundary Oak Distillery
Photo: Boundary Oak Distillery
Photo: Beam Suntory
Photo: Beam Suntory
Photo: Beam Suntory
Photo: Baker-Bird Winery and Distillery

Exactly 100 years after Kentucky distilleries scrambled to deal with the enforcement of Prohibition, 21st century distillers are showing creative initiative in response to crisis, retooling facilities to produce alcohol-based hand sanitizer to counter the coronavirus pandemic.

“We honestly just reacted to the need and the need kept coming,” says Brent Goodin, Master Distiller at Boundary Oak Distillery, a member of Nolin RECC, who believes the rate of infection in Kentucky was lowered “partly due to distilleries big and small stepping up and flooding the state with sanitizer.”

The Elizabethtown distillery is one of dozens statewide producing hard-to-find hand sanitizer for hospitals, EMS and first responders, nursing homes, hospice, police, foster care centers and other priority needs. 

“These companies worked quickly and tirelessly to source the materials and manufacture this essential product for Kentuckians fighting on the front lines of this pandemic,” says Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear.

By the first week of May, the Kentucky Distillers Association (KDA) estimates its members had donated more than 150,000 gallons of hand sanitizer, the equivalent of about 756,000 “fifths” of Kentucky.

“Some of our members were producing hand sanitizer within a few days of being made aware ofthe need,” says Jessica Pendergrass of Heaven Hill Brands, the KDA chairwoman. “Many Craft members were able to meet the immediate needs of their local communities while larger producers ramped up to fulfill state and regional requests.”

At Heaven Hill, a member of Salt River Electric, after grain is fermented and distilled, the resulting neutral grain spirit is combined with water, glycerin and hydrogen peroxide at its Bardstown facilities where it is bottled and labeled for donation.

To start its production, Beam Suntory, also a Salt River Electric member, repurposed its Research and Development pilot plant facility within the Global Innovation Center in Clermont into a space that could safely and efficiently meet the stringent demands of producing FDA-approved hand sanitizer.

“We are grateful to the men and women who are working so tirelessly to protect Kentuckians, and we are proud to donate our hand sanitizer to support their efforts,” says Kevin Smith, Beam Suntory’s VP of Kentucky Bourbon Affairs. “Kentucky is at its best when we help each other, which is what helps inspire our teams every day.”

As the crisis first began to unfold in March, craft distillers huddled on a conference call to share best practices. They credit Shane Baker of Wilderness Trail Distillery in Danville, a member of Inter-County Energy, with the initial ideas and information on how to make the hand sanitizer. 

Marc Dottore, the owner of Dueling Grounds Distillery in Franklin, was on that call. He went to work sourcing materials and reorganizing his five-person staff. Lead Distiller Steve Whitledge applied his chemist training to formulating the sanitizer. Part-time bartender Josh Henderson put his Commercial Driver’s License to good use with deliveries and pick-ups.

“The rich history of America’s native spirit and our state’s signature industry runs deep,” Dottore says. “Never have I been more proud of my fellow craft distillers in Kentucky and across the country for how quickly they have answered the call to help their communities.”

A deep-rooted commitment to community spurred Baker-Bird Winery and Distillery in Augusta to repurpose its Civil War era property. Northern Kentucky small businesses and neighbors are able to purchase the hand sanitizer, with proceeds donated to local food banks.

“I worked 10 years in research/hospital laboratories and emergency rooms. So, I understand the importance of sanitization in controlling disease,” says owner Dinah Bird. “It has been a privilege to offer a product in the fight against the virulent virus that has inflicted so much human suffering and damage to the global economy.”

Jeptha Creed Distillery in Shelbyville not only switched from making spirits to making hand sanitizer for about 7 weeks, it changed what corn it uses in its distilling process. While the distillery typically uses Bloody Butcher Corn grown on its 64 acre farm for all of its products, it  used yellow non-gmo corn for the hand sanitizer. 

“Our values are very important to us,” says Joyce Nethery, Master Distiller and CEO. “It’s why we put Creed into our name.  And part of our values is to help and support those in our community.  Making hand sanitizer fulfills a need in our community and helps us to keep them safe.”

At the recently resurrected Castle & Key Distillery in Frankfort, which began operations in 1887 before succumbing to Prohibition, for every bottle of hand sanitizer purchased through its e-commerce shop, the distillery donates one bottle back to the local community.

“We know there is a need for hand sanitizer today, and ongoing, and we are going to help,” says owners Wesley Murry and Will Arvin. “We are thankful to be in a position to make a meaningful contribution to this effort.”

Christian County’s MB Roland Distillery, a member of Pennyrile Electric, was forced to lay off a few retail employees when the pandemic closed the distillery’s visitors center. But, owners Paul & Merry Beth (“MB”) Tomaszewski soon called them back to help bottle and box thousands of gallons of hand sanitizer for donation and sale.

“Now it’s time to turn our bourbon production back on,” Paul says. “We’re back up to 75% of our normal production and climbing,” while still producing some hand sanitizer.

100 years ago in western Kentucky, the stills crafted by legendary moonshiner Casey Jones to circumvent Prohibition ultimately landed him in prison. Today, a still modeled on his design is cranking out hand sanitizer at the Casey Jones Distillery in Hopkinsville, served by Pennyrile Electric. This time, with the government’s permission and a community’s gratitude.

“While this is a financial opportunity that has allowed us to re-employ and hire more workers,” says Arlon Casey Jones, the distillery’s founder and owner, “this is also a way to be part of the solution of getting our nation healthy.”

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