In times of need, manufacturing is driven by a philosophy John Lennon said best, “There are no problems, only solutions.” Today, manufacturers have pivoted to produce the critical supplies and equipment necessary to battle COVID-19 at a rate never seen before. SME’s Humans of Manufacturing Heroes Edition tells the stories of the teams, companies and partnerships adapting to produce the tools needed to fight this global pandemic. Going behind the scenes to share how these once-in-a-lifetime transformations are happening and the people making it all possible.
For many people, it would be a dream job. Spending your days making what some would call the nectar of the gods - small batch artisanal whiskey, gin and vodka. Located in Detroit’s Eastern Market District, Detroit City Distillery is that dream job for J.P. Jerome, co-owner and founder, and his team. But as COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, swept across Michigan and the country, the craft distillery became an integral part of the nation’s defense.
On March 10, Michigan recorded its first confirmed case of COVID-19 and Governor Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency. By March 16, bars and restaurants were closed, only allowing carryout service. For craft distillers like Detroit City Distillery, that step essentially drove business to a halt.
“Two-thirds of our business was put on pause,” said Jerome. “We have a bar operation that’s normally functional and that’s one-third, if not more, of our business. And then we also have an event space, so we host weddings and corporate events, and that’s obviously not possible currently, maybe not for a decent number of months in the future. So those things sort of immediately went down.”
Meanwhile, along with the worldwide shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), the recent pandemic has led to a shortage of hand sanitizer – a critical element in battling the spread of the disease. Jerome and his business partner, Mike Forsyth, decided they had to do something.
“We realized that the need for hand sanitizer was overwhelming, the demand was crazy. It wasn’t just from individuals in the public. Hospital systems, huge hospital systems in the state of Michigan, big nursing home operations. None of them had hand sanitizer,” said Jerome.
Detroit City Distillery knew they could make hand sanitizer.
“The main ingredient for hand sanitizer is ethanol, it’s 80 percent ethanol. And that is what we are normally making every day,” said Jerome. “But normally we are making that to be put into whiskey barrels to become whiskey at some future point. But the process of making ethanol is, it is what it is, you know?”
However, making hand sanitizer is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and distilleries are regulated in what they’re allowed to make and do with the ethanol they produce by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). And in the beginning of the pandemic, neither had given distilleries the approval to change their operations.
When approval finally came, Jerome and his team at Detroit City Distillery immediately jumped into gear.
“They eventually told us we were allowed to produce a certain version of hand sanitizer. So that’s when we started. I mean, I literally got the news that we were allowed to do it and we were applying to the FDA for labels and we were making huge purchases of the secondary ingredients later that night,” Jerome said.
Detroit has been an epicenter for the coronavirus and one of the hardest hit areas in the country. Wayne County, where Detroit is located, is in the top five counties in the United States for COVID-19 deaths. And for Jerome and the other workers at Detroit City Distillery, it feels good to be making a difference.
“I’ll be honest, they’d rather be making whiskey. There’s not a lot of glamor and excitement and fun around making and packaging hand sanitizer for ten to 12 hours or more each day. Nobody grew up saying, ‘one day I’m going to make hand sanitizer,’” said Jerome. “But every once in a while, we get a customer that tells us, ‘you know, we’re so happy that you’re doing this because we can’t find hand sanitizer anywhere.’ When you hear that, coming from nurses and ER doctors, A, it’s kind of sad and scary, but, B, it makes us definitely feel like we might be making a difference out there in the world.”
For craft distilleries, producing hand sanitizer isn’t just a way to make a difference, but an opportunity to keep their staff employed and operations continuing while many areas are shut down because of the virus, according to Brad Plummer, spokesman for the American Distilling Institute (ADI) and a craft distiller himself who has switched to producing hand sanitizer.
“Alcohol sales at the moment are up, like seriously up, 50 percent or more over last year at this time,” said Plummer. “But the caveat there is that people are buying value brands over craft. So, Smirnoff is making a killing right now, but the local vodka distiller is probably not doing so well.”
And craft distilleries across the country are pitching in to help.
“The anecdotal evidence so far is that up to 75 percent [of craft distilleries] are producing sanitizer,” Plummer added.
An organization called Disinfect Connect, in conjunction with ADI, has put together a map to find local distilleries that are producing hand sanitizer.
And Detroit City Distillery will continue producing hand sanitizer as long as it is needed, and they have the capacity to do so. By the end of April, the company had made more than 15,000 gallons of hand sanitizer. In fact, the company has begun sourcing ethanol from large ethanol factories as they now “produce more hand sanitizer than we would be able to actually distill in terms of the ethanol,” according to Jerome.
Of that 15,000 gallons, 5,000 gallons went directly to State of Michigan supply warehouses. The Detroit Medical Center (DMC) also received a substantial quantity of hand sanitizer from Detroit City Distillery. The rest, Jerome shared, has been 10 and 20 gallons to different operations, including shelters, nursing homes, and smaller hospitals not directly in the city of Detroit.
“We’ve paused quite a bit on putting whiskey into barrels, which is probably not for the best in a couple of years from now, but we really have to take care of ourselves and everybody else,” Jerome added. “You know, putting whiskey in barrels maybe is less important than making hand sanitizer right now.”