Kevin and Ann Thomas are the kind of people who solve problems, not succumb to them. So when the Ohio Department of Health on March 15 ordered restaurants and bars to close their doors to in-house patrons to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, the husband-and-wife founders of Western Reserve Distillers began exploring ways to ensure their 20,000-square-foot Lakewood distillery would survive the resulting economic challenges — namely, a drop in demand for its organic craft vodkas, gins, rums, bourbons and whiskeys.
“While we were doing that, a couple of friends had emailed us about distilleries on the West Coast that had turned to making hand sanitizer,” says Ann Thomas, who serves as Western Reserve’s chief marketing officer. The pandemic essential was becoming hard to find on retailers’ shelves and websites.
The next day, the Thomases received another email, this one from the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. It provided a link to the Food and Drug Administration’s guidance allowing entities currently not regulated as drug manufacturers to make hand sanitizer if they followed FDA guidelines. The missive also advised that the bureau was relaxing some regulatory requirements — those regarding the transfer of alcohol from one distillery to another, for example — and eliminating the tax on all alcohol used to make hand sanitizer. Within hours, they received an email from the World Health Organization containing its FDA-recommended formula for making a simple hand sanitizer with 80 percent alcohol, glycerin, hydrogen peroxide and purified water.
Western Reserve Distillers’ vodka was coming off the still at 96 percent alcohol, watered down to 40 percent before bottling. Kevin Thomas, an engineer who’d retired from Nestle as director of business development for North America, immediately began looking for suppliers of plastic gallon jugs, glycerin and hydrogen peroxide. He and the Thomases’ 31-year-old son, Jake, decided to mix their new product in a 100-liter stainless-steel container, conical in shape with a faucet-like lever at its pointed bottom that the distillery once used to blend botanicals and gin.
“You open [the lever] up, you fill the jug, you close [the lever],” says Ann Thomas. “The jug sits on a scale. You weigh it. It gets capped, and then it goes in a box.”
Western Reserve Distillers is just one of the Northeast Ohio distilleries that switched its production to help meet a need for a product that at the beginning of the year wasn’t even on some household shopping lists and business supply orders. It has taken ingenuity, perseverance and a little luck, particularly at a time when just getting the supplies to make and package the stuff was nearly impossible. But the payoff has been bigger than the ridiculously high asking prices once found on eBay — a gratifying charitable effort that extended beyond city limits, county and state lines and even an international border.
Like the Thomases, Ted Swaldo, owner of the winery resort Gervasi Vineyard in Canton, had heard about distilleries that had turned to making hand sanitizer in an effort to ease the pandemic-induced shortages. He and his son, Scott, the general manager, suspended their on-site distillery’s production of gins, vodkas and bourbons to make 400 gallons of the product to donate to the community. Andy Codispoti, director of winemaking and distilling operations, notes that making hand sanitizer required the same equipment and four to five employees still working in the winery and distillery — in fact, three of those people were called back to work after being laid off just to manage the process. The decision didn’t create a shortage for the resort’s state-shuttered restaurants and cocktail lounge.
“If somebody wanted to come in and purchase a bottle of our bourbon or vodka to take home, we had plenty of inventory to do that,” Codispoti says.
Codispoti, along with Gervasi’s winery manager and distiller, adopted a “divide-and-conquer” approach to finding the necessary materials, fielding sourcing tips from the community as news of the effort spread. Codispoti scored 3,000 18-ounce plastic barbecue sauce bottles at a discount from the property’s Montreal bottle supplier, Berlin Packaging — the only plastic bottles he could find in stock after calling suppliers across the U.S. — and secured donations of corn from the nearby Charlie Swartz Farm and grain-milling services from Hartville Elevator Co. in Hartville, suppliers for the distillery’s bourbon production. The labels, designed per FDA requirements, were provided free of charge by another supplier, Huron custom label printer Label Aid, as was yeast from Montreal-based maker Lallamand and some packing cartons by Berardi’s Fresh Roast coffee wholesaler in North Royalton.
As at Western Reserve Distillers, production was a low-tech operation that involved manually mixing the sanitizer in small stainless-steel tanks used for distilling operations, then bottling and labeling it by hand. The bottles were picked up by local hospitals, the Stark County Emergency Management Agency and the cities of Canton and nearby Green for their fire and police departments.
“We learned quickly that if we were going to ship, it required a whole new set of compliance protocols,” Codispoti says. “Since we were only wanting to supply and only able to supply the immediate community, we had now two reasons to not do any shipping.”
Conversely, Tom Lix, Cleveland Whiskey founder and chief executive officer, began production with a single recipient in mind. He’d begun ordering supplies to make hand sanitizer around St. Patrick’s Day when he received a call from a Cleveland Clinic pharmacy director who remembered touring Cleveland Whiskey a couple of years ago.
“They were looking at their own impending shortages,” he recalls. “She asked if we were going to make hand sanitizer, and I said, ‘Absolutely, positively!’ In the span of minutes, we decided, ‘OK, let’s just do this in partnership.’”
The clinic assisted in getting bottles, hydrogen peroxide, glycerin and a bittering agent to denature the alcohol — that is, make it poisonous or unpalatable to discourage consumption — and sent over a half-dozen or so employees to help with the initial blending and bottling. Lix describes using a paddle to mix the sanitizer in 55-gallon stainless-steel drums, then moving the drums to the bottling line.
“Within a couple of days, we started producing,” he says.
Ken Obloy and Brad Kochmit were already collecting the trace amounts of more volatile alcohols yielded in producing their Voodoux-brand vodka — the acetone, albuterol and methanol that Obloy says moonshiners used to call “heads” or “foreshots” — to sanitize equipment at their then month-old BKO Distillery in Medina by the time the state began issuing shutdowns. After reading news reports about shortages and price gouging, they decided to offer small bottles of their sanitizer to anyone who walked in to BKO’s 1,000-square-foot space as a little thank you for their business. He clarifies that the sanitizer was pure 75 percent alcohol (the aforementioned kinds they separate from the vodka), devoid of hydrogen peroxide and glycerin, to be used to disinfect surfaces.
“We went to Dollar Generals and cleaned out their shelves of the little three-packs of personal bottles,” Obloy says. “We would open them up, fill them with it [by hand], and label them with our little printer.”
Then Obloy and Kochmit posted a message on Facebook stating they were handing out sanitizer to anyone who needed it. The response was similar to the one Codispoti describes once word got out that Gervasi Vineyard was making hand sanitizer.
“All of a sudden, several local newspapers, radio [stations], just came pouring in left and right. … It went ballistic,” Obloy says. “All of a sudden, we had every post office in the state, 32 different police departments, the Cleveland FBI office, the Medina County prosecutor’s office — I mean, you name it — pouring in here and asking us for sanitizer! We made as absolute much as we could.”
Making hand sanitizer has become more than a community service for Western Reserve Distillers — it’s a sideline that has increased its workforce from three full timers, not counting the Thomases, to 12 full-time employees. On March 25, a week after the distillery made its first batch of hand sanitizer, Ann Thomas began hiring people to fill, cap, label and pack the plastic gallon jugs, then load them in the vehicles of customers arriving to pick up orders.
As bulk orders increased and a night shift was added, a couple more people were brought on board to work the day shift. Three more were trained on a point-of-sale system so they could man a gift shop selling sanitizer, along with branded merchandise and a full line of spirits, in the space once occupied by its Distil Table restaurant — a casualty of the pandemic — and answer emails and telephones.
“During this time, we still had our production of our own products,” she says. “We still had our whiskey bottles to fill.”
She estimates the distillery has produced close to 55,000 gallons of hand sanitizer, each sold for $35 plus tax to companies as far away as Alabama. The distillery is now purchasing alcohol containing a denaturing agent by the tanker. (Her husband points out that hand sanitizer doesn’t require their fine organic alcohol to make.) Local clients include Cleveland Public Library, Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, school districts and nursing homes. A portion of the proceeds have gone to a U.S. Bartenders’ Guild fund for bartenders who lost their jobs during the pandemic.
“We don’t have a huge profit margin on it only because we’ve kept the dollar amount on it low. … The reason we started to do this was because we saw that people were going to need it, and we wanted to do something for the community,” she says. “We’re not in this to make a quick buck.”
Gervasi began selling its hand sanitizer — about 1,100 gallons of the 1,900 gallons produced (400 gallons were kept for on-site and staff use) — in April to recoup costs incurred in making the first donated batch. “We made a decision to move ahead because the need was there before we really understood what it was going to cost to do it,” he admits. Plastic gallon jugs were sold for $34 plus tax on the winery resort’s web store for curbside pickup. A quart bottle subsequently became available from the Montreal supplier for a third and final run and was sold for $16 plus tax.
Lix says producing hand sanitizer has kept Cleveland Whiskey’s 14 employees on the job full time, even as demand for the distillery’s whiskeys waned a bit with the closure of bars and restaurants. He estimates the company has produced close to 20,000 bottles ranging in size from 2-ounce bottles to gallon jugs.
“Everything we’ve made so far, and everything we’ve bottled, we’ve donated it” — to the state of Ohio, nursing homes, local Urban League offices for distribution to communities and Cuyahoga County fire stations, as well as the clinic, he says.
Donations obtained with the help of Manufacturing Advocacy & Growth Network Cleveland have increased production and defrayed costs: 8,000 pounds of corn from Centerra Co-op in Ashland, a ton of malted barley from West Branch Malts in Brunswick, a truckload of beer in kegs for further distillation from Superior Beverage Group in Glenwillow, 550 gallons of alcohol from Red Eagle Distillery in Geneva, plastic bottles from Lawrenceville, Georgia-based Axium Plastics, and labels from Label Aid. Cincinnati-based personal and household care product-making giant Procter & Gamble even sent 55-gallon drums of hand sanitizer for bottling, labeling and distribution to the state.
“When some of the initial press about what we were doing got out, and some of the things we were doing online, people started calling and saying, ‘OK, how can we help?’” Lix says. Because of those donations, “we were able to produce much, much more than we would normally have if we were trying to sell it. I know other distilleries have sold it for their revenue purposes. And that sort of makes sense where they sell a little bit, and they donate a little bit. For us, the right thing to do was just to donate it.”
BKO also has donated all of its sanitizer — more than 10,000 various-sized bottles — all filled by hand with funnels by Obloy, Kochmit and their mothers. The packaging used since those first-purchased bottles were filled have been provided free of charge — a result, Obloy says, of the media coverage. Medina-based coatings, sealants and building materials manufacturer RPM International and Philadelphia-area-based adhesive-maker Chemical Concepts contributed 7,000 2-, 8- and 10-ounce plastic bottles and 1,000 2-ounce bottles respectively.
“We have sacrificed a lot of [alcohol] that would have otherwise become vodka to make sanitizer,” Obloy says. “The demand has been — well, literally, as much as we can make, we can give it out.”
Although Gervasi has no plans to make more hand sanitizer, Lix and Obloy say they will continue producing it as long as regulations permit and need persists. According to Kevin Thomas, Western Reserve Distillers is even applying for a state of Ohio grant to continue making it. His wife, however, is quite vocal about her desire to focus on their primary business.
“I don’t want to make hand sanitizer forever,” she says, the humor in her voice tinged with frustration. “I want to make gin! I want to make vodka!”