Spirits and sanitizer

(First published in the April 2, 2020 issue of City Pages)

Timekeeper Distillery switches to making hand-sanitzer during the coronavirus emergency, and can’t keep up with demand

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Dan Weber

Like most establishments that serve alcohol, Timekeeper Distillery in Wausau closed last week in response to the coronavirus social distancing emergency. But owner Dan Weber is still busy. His distilling equipment that once turned out whiskies, bourbons, gins and vodkas is now cranking out hand-sanitizer.

Distilleries are uniquely equipped to make liquid sanitizer, since it’s essentially an alcohol, which distilleries are licensed to make and blend, Weber says. Normally there are extra federal licensing requirements to make the substance, but sanitizer is in short supply as the entire country deals with the coronavirus pandemic. The federal government relaxed rules so that distilleries could start making the product to address the high demand.

Great Northern Distillery in Plover is also making hand sanitizer, as have most others. According to the Wisconsin Distillers Guild, roughly 75% of the state’s 30 distilleries have switched to making hand-sanitizer.

Weber says it now takes about a week to complete a batch of hand sanitizer, but he hopes to keep tweaking the process to get that down to about three or four days. The distillery, located in the historic train depot on Grant Street, currently is producing about 150 gallons per week; at peak, Weber hopes to reach closer to 40-50 gallons per day.

Timekeeper has seen so many requests for hand sanitizer that Weber is currently backordered. He’s been selling mostly to local operations like manufacturers, nursing homes and trucking businesses. They’re bottling the product in all different sizes, from 12-ounce bottles a truck driver might keep in his or her cab, to five gallon containers for a business with its own dispensers.

Hand sanitizer isn’t the only way Timekeeper has been keeping itself in business. Its liquors and batch cocktails are still sold in stores and they’ve been selling bottles through driveup service on some Fridays and Saturdays. Timekeeper has a pretty extensive inventory, Weber says, but eventually they will run out since the distillery has completely switched over to hand sanitizer.

But the switch has helped Timekeeper maintain some business during the shutdown and the drive up sales at least help staff get some hours during the shutdown. “That’s a really hard conversation to have with 10-14 people, letting them know unfortunately, temporarily their services wouldn’t be required,” Weber says. “As soon as we can open we will bring everyone back on board.”

Timekeeper announces its Friday and Saturday pickups on its Facebook page. In the meantime, Weber looks forward to getting back to distilling those gins, vodkas, bourbons and whiskies. “I think once we’re back in business, we will back away from the sanitizers,” Weber says.