“It’s been a month since we made any whiskey,” said Pat Hoffmann, co-owner of the Lonely Oak Distillery, which is located about three miles west of Earling.
During that time, the company switched exclusively to making hand sanitizer, which has been in short supply since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hoffmann and his wife, Amy, opened their distillery in July 2017; full-time production started in November of last year.
The company’s main products until a month ago were vodka, bourbon and rye alcohol.
As a small business, Lonely Oak Distillery was nimble enough to quickly make the change to the production of hand sanitizer.
“We use a lot of the same equipment we use to make alcohol. It’s just that we use it in a different way,” Hoffmann said.
The company could not just flip a switch and start making sanitizer, however.
“There were a lot of regulatory steps we had to go through with the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and also the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) that oversees us,” Hoffmann said. “Because of the great need, a lot of the regulations were eased, which allowed us to do this.”
As a producer of alcohol, Lonely Oak Distillery was in a good position to make hand sanitizer.
The product they are now making is one that is approved by the FDA and the World Health Organization.
“With the regulations that exist, the FDA said if you’re going to make hand sanitizer this is the formulation you have to use,” Hoffmann said.
The sanitizer leaving their distillery is 80 percent alcohol, which is 10 percent above the required level to kill COVID-19.
“To put that in perspective, one gallon of hand sanitizer has as much alcohol in it as two cases of our North Forty Vodka,” he said.
Denaturing the alcohol is part of the required process for making sanitizer.
“You’re not going to want to drink it because of the denaturing process,” Hoffmann said.
The recipe used to make the sanitizer requires alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, glycerin and water.
“We had the alcohol and water, but we had to get the hydrogen peroxide and the glycerin in order to get started,” Hoffmann said. “We were able to buy the glycerin in 55-gallon drums and the hydrogen peroxide we were able to get, as well.”
For the first runs of the product, Lonely Oak used the alcohol produced in-house.
“But we couldn’t keep up,” he said.
Using their own alcohol, the company could produce about 150 gallons per week.
The need for the product was far greater than that amount.
“At our peak we were doing 700 to 800 gallons a day,” he said.
The only way to reach those numbers was to purchase more alcohol.“Being a distillery, we have the ability to purchase alcohol from other large producers,” Hoffmann said. “We had to buy high-proof alcohol to keep it going because we just couldn’t make it fast enough.”
Lonely Oak Distillery has produced about 7,000 gallons of hand sanitizer since the company switched to producing it.
The runs from the first two weeks of production went strictly to healthcare facilities.
They shipped hand sanitizer to hospitals in Denison, Harlan, Red Oak, Sioux City, Des Moines, Omaha, and Council Bluffs.
After filling those orders they began supplying local retailers, packing plants, home health organizations, nursing homes, public utilities and other essential services.
Lonely Oak Distillery also donated hand sanitizer to fire departments, first responders and police departments around the area.
The company is now working on all remaining orders.
“Today is the day we finally caught up,” Hoffmann said on Friday. “We are about 200 gallons ahead on orders.”
He said the company will start producing whiskey again this week.
“We’ll continue to make hand sanitizer as long as there is a need, but I’m really looking forward to making alcohol to drink, not to put on your hands,” he said.
He and Amy worked in healthcare prior to starting their 10-year plan to open a distillery.
“It’s not something you can jump into overnight,” Hoffmann said.
They ordered a still in 2014 but didn’t receive it for two years.
The company started making North Forty Vodka and Steeple Ridge Bourbon in 2017; the vodka has been on the market since then, but about 6,500 gallons of the bourbon has spent most of that time aging in barrels and was just recently put on the market.
They will put a new rum on the market this fall and the rye that the company just started making will go on the market in about a year and a half.
Hoffmann said he looks forward to not working 12-hour days now that the company is caught up on hand sanitizer orders.
He said the long workdays kept him and the company’s employees from having time to be stressed about current events.
“We’re lucky that we don’t have to sit around and watch the news all day. That’s kind of depressing,” Hoffmann said.
“I’m ready to not be in the hand sanitizer business. It’s not what we want to do. I look forward to the day when this is all behind us and Purell is able to meet the need and we can go back to doing what we do best.”