'An absolute whirlwind': Suburban distillery owners reflect on production changes made during pandemic
The last year and a half have been "an absolute whirlwind" for Eric Falberg and his Highwood-based 28 Mile Distilling Co.
The company went from producing vodka to making hand sanitizer because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Who knew that it would take over our lives and business?" said Falberg, a Highwood alderman who operates the distillery with his brother, Gregg.
"We had a staff of over 30 people and ran our operation from 7 a.m. to 12 a.m., seven days a week," Falberg added. "At one point we were producing over 60,000 bottles a day."
Falberg's story isn't unique. With traditional sanitizer manufacturers not able to keep up with incredible demand at the start of the pandemic, distilleries across the nation switched their emphasis from spirits to sanitizer -- and then back again.
In the Chicago area, Copper Fiddle Distillery in Lake Zurich, Black Dog Distillery in Plainfield and Rush Creek Distilling in Harvard were among the businesses that shifted production during the pandemic.
Copper Fiddle started producing high-proof ethanol for first responders to use as a surface cleanser early in the crisis, at the request of state Sen. Dan McConchie, a Hawthorn Woods Republican.
The initial batch of 120 bottles originated as 40 cases of rum that was run through a machine called a reflux still.
The Lake Zurich police and fire departments, the Lake County coroner's office, the Lincolnshire Police Department and the Streamwood Fire Department were just some of the agencies that used Copper Fiddle's ethanol.
Copper Fiddle continued producing spirits while making the cleanser. That included its first single barrel bourbon, which was barreled a week before the state shut down because of the pandemic.
"We nicknamed it our Quarantine Barrel," Copper Fiddle owner Andrew Macker said.
The company also launched single barrel rye and bourbon, changed the recipes for its cocktail program and revamped its live music venue.
"Tours and tastings have been great as well," Macker said. "2021 is shaping up to be the distillery's best year."
Black Dog Distillery in Plainfield produced nothing but hand sanitizer for first responders during the early months of the pandemic.
"We did not want any chance of any cross contamination," owner Keith Moore said. "We had ample inventory of spirits."
The switch allowed Black Dog to keep its entire staff employed. And when the traditional cleanser manufacturers caught up with demand in June 2020, Black Dog went back to producing spirits.
"We have not sold any (sanitizer) since then," Moore said.
Once it switched back to spirits, Black Dog has been creative during the pandemic. It's launched two new rum varieties, including one in barrels previously used to make whiskey.
Rush Creek Distilling in Harvard stopped producing spirits in favor of hand sanitizer from late March 2020 until that June, too.
Now back to making spirits including vodka, gin and whiskey, Rush Creek has plans to increase production starting in early 2022, company partner Todd Stricker said.
"We are still not back to 2019 levels, but we see a path forward for the end of 2021 and into 2022," Stricker said.
A limited amount of Rush Creek hand sanitizer remains available for purchase in the distillery's shop.
Highwood's 28 Mile Distilling is back to making spirits, too. In fact, the company has added gin, bourbon and tequila to its repertoire.
"We decided to move everything we made from sanitizer back into the business," Falberg said.
28 Mile's changes go beyond its bottled products. A rooftop bar and recreational space was added to the facility, and a live music building was constructed where a tent once stood.
"We are coming out of this in a much stronger position," Falberg said.