Rebecca Creek Distillery shifts production from whiskey to hand sanitizer in fight against COVID-19
With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic leading to chronic shortages of hand sanitizer, Rebecca Creek Distillery, one of the largest craft distilleries in North America, has confronted the problem head-on.
Steve Ison, a 1993 political science graduate of Texas State University who founded the San Antonio-based distillery in 2009, donated 25 gallons of Rebecca Creek-produced sanitizer to Texas State.
“When I found out Texas State needed sanitizer, I immediately made it happen for those guys, because they’re in need,” said Ison, who serves on the Texas State University Development Foundation’s board of trustees. “They have some students still there, so this will make a little bit of an impact to help with what they’re going through. I’m just glad I was able to help out fellow Bobcats.”
A month ago, Ison had no idea how dramatically coronavirus would upend his business. Now, instead of producing Rebecca Creek Whisky, Texas Ranger Whisky and Enchanted Rock Vodka, the distillery has switched over to full-time production of ethyl alcohol, which is the primary component in hand sanitizer.“It’s happened so fast—it’s just been two weeks. We’ve had to shift our whole production to crank this out,” Ison said. “All of the sudden, there was a huge shortage of hand sanitizer all over the country. I heard that a couple of my fellow distillers in other states were stepping up and trying to make it as fast as they could, but they were running into roadblocks with the FDA, because you have to get [the product] certified and tested. There’s a lot of hurdles to get through.
“We—the distilleries—acted through our lobbyists to reach out and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get this fast tracked’ to the government. After two days, they lifted those roadblocks and said, ‘As long as you make it within these guidelines, you can give it away or sell it,’” he said. “We make ethanol alcohol every day, so we could spring into action. We had the capacity to do it very fast. We jumped in there and started making it.”
The first batch of hand sanitizer rolled out of Rebecca Creek Distillery the first week of April, and Ison donated it to San Antonio for use by the city’s first responders to help prevent them from contracting COVID-19. Since then, Ison has reached out to other major cities in Texas—Fort Worth, Dallas, Houston and Austin—to supply their first responders with much-needed sanitizer as well. The remaining sanitizer produced goes into the distribution network for retail sale. That unexpected new business direction came as a welcome respite for the distillery, which took a hit when statewide social distancing measures were put into place.
“We got impacted pretty bad. We have 50,000 tourists coming through our distillery every year, with special events and tours every hour,” Ison said. “All that revenue was substantial and went away overnight. We lost all of our bar and restaurant business overnight as well. I had to lay off all my bartenders and all my tour guides.
“We had to figure out a way to replace that revenue and keep our folks working,” he said. “Those folks I laid off, I was able to bring back almost all of them and put them to work getting our production out—all the new sanitizer.”
Fans of Rebecca Creek Whisky shouldn’t be concerned that the new focus on sanitizer is going to threaten the availability of the distillery’s signature spirits. Rebecca Creek Distillery had built up a large stockpile prior to the pandemic, Ison said, ensuring that there will be ample retail supply for the foreseeable future.