DeKalb Distillery Switches To Making Hand Sanitizer
Family company adjusts its business during pandemic
By Louise Brass, Observer Correspondent
May 14, 2020
DEKALB—Locating hand sanitizer during the coronavirus pandemic is a problem that is becoming easier to overcome thanks to the efforts of Whiskey Acres Distillery Co., which has switched the focus of its operations to meet the need.
Jamie Walter, president and CEO, said the company has always assisted good causes and this is just one more way to help.  
“There are a lot of people out in the world doing good things, and we want to help them,” he said. “I think that type of attitude is common among Catholics who see themselves as part of a community that we all need to give to.”
And, of course, when it comes to doing good things for others, the old saying rings true today: “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” 
The idea of how this farming operation could help the nation combat the deadly coronavirus by making hand sanitizing products came to Walter and his business partner, Nick Nagle, as they were traveling back from a business trip in Nebraska early in March. They heard the news about the rapid spread of the coronavirus and the pleas for much needed sanitizing products on the car radio.
At the time, manufacturing hand sanitizers was the furthest thing from his mind, says Walter, a member
of Christ the Teacher University Parish at the Newman Center in DeKalb. But the urgency to help protect the public and save lives was strikingly evident.
“We were driving back when the pandemic was originally announced. We brainstormed in the vehicle about what we could do and how we should respond,” he said.
Whiskey Acres was incorporated in 2014, and during normal activities employs a full-time distiller, eight tasting-room ambassadors who give weekly tours, a bookkeeper and a number of interns (mostly chemistry students from Northern Illinois University). 
But the pandemic changed all that.
“We actually proactively decided to shut down before the governor shut us down. We had a lot of hands on a lot of glasses in close proximity. So, we closed,” he said. 
“But we had all this alcohol. That’s the main ingredient in hand sanitizer.”
However, it soon became clear there would be many regulations to meet and hurdles to jump through in order to switch their family business to the new manufacturing endeavor, after making and selling whiskey, rye, and bourbon at the farm for generations.
They would no longer be able to serve alcohol and would have to close to the public. 
Instead, they put all their efforts into the new plan. 
But first, Walter had to find suppliers for the ingredients and would need to meet stiff regulations for making hand sanitizing products, and would have to include ethanol.
Still, it was the right thing to do, and Walter was inspired by his Catholic beliefs to help those in need, he says. He discovered that his employees — who were Catholic and of other faiths — felt the same desire to help in the effort to combat the dangerous virus and be part of the solution.
Women design t-shirt, raise money for charity
In fact, the women workers at Whiskey Acres showed their determination by designing a t-shirt with a logo depicting “Rosie the Riveter.” The image was famous during another time of great danger, WWII. (Rosie’s image has become a cultural icon recognizing working women of that time employed in factories and shipyards, while some even made weapons.) 
To date, more than 400 of these Rosie-style t-shirts have been sold with more than $5,000 donated to the Northern Illinois Food Bank and other community food groups.
Company crosses supply, legal hurdles
When researching plans to adjust the business, Walter learned the required ethanol was not far away. He located an ethanol plant, CHS Ethanol in  Rochelle, and was soon doing business with that firm. But the ethanol had to be obtained by Whiskey Acres before it underwent its procedure at the Rochelle plant, where it is made usable for fuel.
“We were able to source a small amount of ethanol for Whiskey Acres to use,” he said.
When the remaining ingredients were secured, including glycerin and hydrogen peroxide, the business was ready to launch. There were still many regulations and approvals to be met, including FDA approval for the product and even its labels.
Walter talked with other distillers and together enlisted the help of the American Craft Spirits Assocation, which in turn worked with the Tax and Trade Bureau. 
Before long, approval came from the federal government to go ahead, and the White House sent a digital letter to distilleries encouraging them to make hand sanitizers to help their local communities. The non-sterile solution is produced under the TTB and FDA Emergency Authority.
“We made 150 gallons of liquid hand sanitizer the first week and distributed it to the county health department who then distributed it to the hospitals, clinics, first responders, fire departments, and nursing homes in town,” Walter said.
The second week they made 1,000 gallons, and distributed them to those in need.
“Now we are producing over 1,000 gallons a day,” he said.
The public cannot purchase this hand sanitizer at Whiskey Acres directly, but it is being sold through many retail businesses, including Hy-Vee in Sycamore and liquor and wine locations throughout northern Illinois.
“We were very surprised by the huge demand we received,” Walter said. “We were shocked to be approached by hospitals and many businesses asking if we can do more.”
Some of Whiskey Acres’ largest customers include United Labs, ComEd, United Airlines and government entities. 
Jamie’s father, Jim Walter, a member of St. Mary Parish in DeKalb, is not involved with the new endeavor, preferring to stay with the family farming operation. However, he said he’s pleased that Whiskey Acres, while closed to the public for now, is helping with the national emergency.
“We are glad to do this for the community, especially because we were in the situation where we had to shut down our facilities,” Jim said.
But he has his sights set firmly on the future. “We are planting corn so we have something to eat next year,” he said. 
The new activity is a blessing, Jamie added, “It allows us to keep the lights on and our employees paid.”
Like many people across the nation, both father and son look forward to the day when they can return to their original activities.
Individuals may order t-shirts and companies may order hand sanitizers through the Whiskey Acres website at Whiskey
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