This Northeast Indiana distillery is fighting COVID-19 with hand sanitizer—and they need your help

During World War II, companies across the U.S. shifted gears and stopped producing consumer goods to make materials for the war effort instead.

Today, as the U.S.—and the entire world—battle the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s causing a similar all-hands-on-deck response, redirecting companies of all kinds to support the cause however they can.

One unlikely industry impacted by this shift is the distilling industry. Three Rivers Distilling Co. got their own labels and packaging donated from the community.

Under the threat of COVID-19, hand-sanitizer is becoming a hot commodity for essential employees like healthcare workers to remain in the workforce. But to be effective against COVID-19, this special super-sanitizer must be made with at least 80 proof alcohol.

Since drugstores have a limited supply of the product, distilleries are stepping in to fill the gap.

On March 18, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau announced that it would allow spirits distilleries to pivot and produce ethanol-based hand sanitizers.

Now, distilleries across the U.S. are converting their processes for making whiskey, gin, and vodka, to making hand sanitizer alone—not to sell but to donate in hopes of flattening the curve of people infected by COVID-19.

In Fort Wayne, Three Rivers Distilling Company (TRDC) is joining the cause. Typically known for their 100 percent grain-to-bottle, Indiana-made, non-GMO spirits, they’re now converting all of their processes and equipment to producing hand sanitizer instead, says President Marla Schneider. The change is expected to last for the foreseeable future.

Making hand sanitizer that's effective against COVID-19 requires at least 80-proof alcohol.

When Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb shut down all restaurants and bars to dine-in service on March 16, TRDC maintained a small carryout presence for their on-site restaurant at first, but food service quickly gave way to the astronomical demand for hand sanitizer.

Schneider started receiving emails from friends and family about distilleries across the U.S. making the product, so her staff decided to give it a go.

On Thursday, March 19, they donated 45 gallons of hand sanitizer to businesses in Fort Wayne, and a local news station covered their efforts.

By 8 a.m. Friday, the phone was ringing off the hook.

“It hasn’t stopped ringing since,” Schneider says. “We have just been flooded with requests.”

Three Rivers Distilling Co. made 144 gallons of hand sanitizer in one day.

Katy Silliman, Vice President of Retail Operations, says the demand for sanitizer is overwhelming—and growing. Requests are constantly coming in from businesses and organizations of all kinds, including post offices, jails, healthcare systems, police departments, fire squads, and more.

This presents TRDC with the arguably greater task of deciding who gets the product first. While their goal is to donate sanitizer to everyone who asks, they can only produce 15 gallons at a time, as a small-batch distillery.

On top of that, since they are one of the only distilleries making the product in northeast Indiana (one of nine registered statewide), they’re fielding requests from across the state and even Ohio—everywhere within a 200-mile radius, Schneider says.

“We are doing our absolute best to serve as many people as we can as fast as we can,” she adds.

First responders and healthcare providers at the top of the priority list for hand sanitizer.

In the first five days of making hand sanitizer, TRDC donated 370 gallons of it costing approximately $15 each, and they’re not slowing down anytime soon. As of Friday, they had 319 outstanding asks from companies and organizations serving a collective half-million people.

But while the challenge is immense, it’s also inspiring, Silliman says. Having such important work to do in a time of crisis is giving her and other employees a sense of meaning, a distraction, and most critically, a job.

While layoffs have gutted the national service industry, TRDC has retained six of its staff, including its management and distilling teams. It originally moved some of its restaurant staff over to the distilling side of the business, too. But it had to furlough about 15 employees to reduce the threat of germs.

For those left, it’s a race against the clock to keep up with an ever-increasing demand with no end in sight.

“You’re literally racing from the moment you wake up to get as much done as you can in the day, and then you go to bed and start all over again,” Silliman says.

Buckets of hand sanitizer waiting to go out.

On top of the high demand is the myriad of challenges involved with shifting a company’s operations to a new model and identifying suppliers.

“We have basically put an entirely new division into our company in a week and a half,” Schneider says.

Another layer of complexity is navigating the constantly evolving system of rules and regulations for making hand sanitizer under COVID-19.

Schneider compares the current state of sanitizer production in the U.S. to the Wild West. Three government agencies regulate how it is made and distributed, but these agencies often don’t agree with one another, she says. On top of that, there are new announcements and workplace regulations being imposed for COVID-19 every day.

There’s also the issue of supply and demand.

Members of the Richard Lugar Safe Haven for Veterans pick up hand sanitizer.

As more distilleries scramble to produce as much hand sanitizer as possible, the ingredients to make it are becoming more and more scarce.

For example, two FDA-approved hand sanitizer recipes call for a combination of ethyl or isopropyl alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, and glycerol. So far, TRDC has been distilling its own grain inventory to produce the high-proof alcohol. But other ingredients, like glycerol and hydrogen peroxide, are in short supply.

Marla says TRDC has run into several instances where they thought they had an ingredient ordered, only to find out a few hours later that it was delayed or sold out.

Meanwhile, the demand for hand sanitizer in Fort Wayne keeps growing.

To meet needs as quickly as possible, TRDC has started reaching out to other local companies in Fort Wayne, asking if they have any raw materials available for purchase or donation.

They’ve received a few positive responses, too. The Medicine Chest Pharmacy in Fort Wayne donated 120 gallons of glycerol, and North Coast Organics was able to spare 2 gallons of hydrogen peroxide from its inventory.

Generous companies like the Medicine Chest Pharmacy in Fort Wayne have donated supplies to TRDC.

“That allowed us to make two batches of hand sanitizer,” Marla says. “It may sound small, but that is what keeps us going day by day.”

She says they’ve received generous monetary donations and letters of support from the community, as well. Residents who want to support the cause can donate cash or checks, or visit TRDC’s GoFundMe page. All money raised goes directly toward making hand sanitizer, Marla says. TRDC isn’t pocketing any of it to support their staff.

Instead, they see their work as an extension of their distillery’s mission from day one: Building up Fort Wayne’s community with all-in, 100-percent local support. Three Rivers Distilling Co.'s patio.

“It’s been a very inspiring thing to be a part of,” Silliman says. “Every time someone picks up a batch of hand sanitizer, the gratitude and relief we hear from them is amazing. People thank us over and over again. That has been motivating for me, so we’re trying to capture those moments and to share them with everyone on social media. There’s so little any of us can control right now, but this is something we can do. And we’ve been very encouraged by the number of people who have been like, ‘How can I help you do more?’” she adds.

When life returns to the new normal, Silliman just hopes that TRDC’s restaurant and patio will be a place where Fort Wayne can come together once again and reflect on this life-altering experience over a craft cocktail.


Learn more

To receive hand sanitizer or donate to the cause, visit Three Rivers Distilling Company’s website.

Companies willing to sell or donate hand sanitizer ingredients can contact [email protected]. They are currently looking for a 55-gallon drum of isopropyl alcohol at 99.8 percent proof, as well as a gallon of hydrogen peroxide (ideally a 35 percent solution).

Three Rivers Distilling Company’s spirits are currently sold at Fort Wayne area liquor stores. Their bestselling product is their Third Time Bourbon.

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Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.