J. Carver Distillery produces a number of hand-crafted spirits: whiskeys, vodkas, bourbons, brandies, gins and more.
Now add another product to its shelves -- hand sanitizer.
“It’s not something we ever considered before,” says J. Carver founder and partner Bill Miller, and it’s not something he expects to be a standard product line. But recently the Waconia distillery turned a batch of vodka into much needed hand sanitizer for local healthcare providers and first responders on the front line of the COVID-19 crisis.
“We have all heard the stories about toilet paper shortages, but everyone that has searched for it knows the real shortage is hand sanitizer,” Miller said.
With the onset of coronavirus concerns, it did not take long for the surge in hand sanitizer demand to stretch the manufacturing supply chain to the point where consumers began seeking alternative sources, Miller notes.
People began making their own hand sanitizer at home using bathroom supplies like rubbing alcohol, aloe and such. The inventories of those types of products were likewise quickly depleted at pharmacies across the country, all in a matter of days.
One component of some hand sanitizers is high-proof alcohol, “which obviously is what distilleries are designed to produce,” Miller explains.
“Vodka is essentially high-proof ethanol,” he said. “Much of it is stored in bottles at lower proof, but some is stored at higher proof in preparation for bottling, and it takes about a week or more to make. So when Federal regulators issued emergency guidance allowing distilleries to produce hand sanitizer, we immediately embarked on the process to convert our excess vodka into that product and shifted production from bourbon to vodka.
“At first there were more questions than answers, and nothing was as easy as we had hoped,” Miller said. “The speedy production of our first batch turned out to be an amazingly positive story of Americans and Minnesotans coming together to help our country and communities.”
Federal regulators provided guidelines and acceptable recipes and labeling recommendations, he noted. The National Distillery Association provided guidance and updates. Other local distilleries helped locate ingredients that were in short supply. Local manufacturing companies helped J. Carver staff make and properly label the hand sanitizer, and friends and local officials offered labor and assistance.
“I am very proud of the J. Carver team and what we were able to accomplish in short order, but we are not seeking a pat on the back,” Miller said. “We could not have accomplished this without the help of many others.”
For example, Custom Formulations, a personal products producer in Cologne, and Packaging Concepts in Minneapolis donated bottles and sprayers. Back at the distillery, J. Carver partner Gina Holman worked with Catherine Nielsen of CD Products, a neighbor in the industrial park, developing labels.
“Finding labels was not easy,” Miller said. “Gina’s husband and children drove all over Minneapolis buying up every 3.33 by 4-inch dark white label they could find until we had enough to start.”
J. Carver staff, family and friends also helped with labeling and filling bottles.
“Dr. Jeff Mair, a neighbor and Twin Cities Orthopedics surgeon, and his daughter Aubrey labeled thousands of small bottles by hand for hours,” Miller said. “And local Rep.Jim Nash, who was the first one to call and suggest we try to help, showed up with his entire family and they stayed until we shut the process down late that night. Our distiller Dan Niesen and his son Ben also helped with labeling and filling orders."
The local distillery also received several other offers of help, but limited assistance to manage the size and limit contact.
J. Carver’s business model is built on producing high quality craft spirits using locally grown grains. It’s a process that takes time and is done on a smaller scale. So, while the J. Carver line of hand sanitizer should be of the finest quality (just don’t drink it -- external use only), “we knew the demand was limitless and we could only help a little,” Miller notes.
J. Carver’s initial batch of hand sanitizer production amounted to 700 liters -- “about what the big distilleries can turn out in a few seconds,” Miller said.
But there was another batch of vodka fermenting at J.Carver this week. So, the local distillery is ready if more emergency hand sanitizer is needed.