Chad Staehly, Nicholas Weber and Mitchell Parr co-founded La Crosse Distilling Co. in the fall of 2018. The company is now producing hand sanitizer to meet the demand due to the spread of COVID-19. (Photo provided by La Crosse Distilling Co.)
Chad Staehly, Nicholas Weber and Mitchell Parr co-founded La Crosse Distilling Co. in the fall of 2018. The company is now producing hand sanitizer to meet the demand due to the spread of COVID-19. (Photo provided by La Crosse Distilling Co.)

To fill demand, distillers across the country are changing up business models to do their part in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic

During normal times, the ingredients that turn out vodka, high rye light whisky and gin run through the stills at La Crosse Distilling Co

But normal times ended weeks ago and the production of organically sourced spirits stopped. In their place was a new recipe that calls for food-grain ethanol, hydrogen peroxide and glycerin. 

Like distillers across the country, La Crosse Distilling Co. is now in the business of making hand sanitizer. 

At a time when the spread of the deadly coronavirus is forcing schools to close, businesses to shutter their doors, and the governor to order people to stay at home, it’s a business model shift many are making in an attempt to financially survive.

“Our phone and email at the distillery blew up,” said Chad Staehly, who moved back to his home state of Wisconsin with his wife and two sons in the fall of 2017. A year later Staehly opened the distilling company with Nicholas Weber and Michael Parr. “I can’t begin to tell you how many local people, local agencies, city hall, assisted living, sheriff departments and voting districts from across the state have reached out to us looking for hand sanitizer. There is that much of a shortage.”

The company’s switch to hand sanitizer production began a few weeks ago when he heard about distilleries on the West Coast making the change. He had some raw alcohol left over from a few other batches of spirit production that had yet to be used.

While the guys were figuring out how to get production underway, a letter arrived from the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

“It basically said there is a massive shortage of hand sanitizer and if you want to make it here is the formula,” Staehly said.  “I think the TTB just reached out to all distilleries. We are all permitted to handle food grade ethanol. If we weren’t, it would take us months to get approval and start production.”

They ended up producing 250 gallons of sanitizer from their own raw materials. What they produced is already gone.

Last weekend, the company distributed free 4-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer – one per person – at eight pickup sites in La Crosse County. At the end of the weekend, roughly 6,000 bottles had been donated, Staehly said. 

Angela Welchert, community outreach director with La Crosse Distilling Co., hands out free hand sanitizer last weekend. (Photo by La Crosse Distilling Co.)

Last Monday, the company mailed out 20 gallons to eight U.S. Marine Corps outpost offices throughout the region.

The requests keep coming. Everyone from truck drivers to Eat Street, Uber Eats, grocery stores and companies in the food packaging industry are reaching out to see if they have more to sell. 

Because they are a 100 percent certified organic distillery the company has never outsourced for ingredients of any kind, Staehly said. But in order to produce tens of thousands of gallons of hand sanitizer that business model is changing. 

Staehly said it has been “all hands on deck” as the company scrambles to get loans and tries to rework its business model in a matter of weeks, plus source ethanol and plastic bottles, all of which are in short supply. 

“It has been insane,” he said. “We are improvising and adapting to what this market is dictating”

For the first time, the company is subcontracting with other facilities to meet space needs for additional production. And for the first time, they are using plastic bottles. 

“Our company was built on a model of sustainability,” Staehly said. “Given the circumstances we are in we are going to do it but it’s been a tough pill to swallow.” 

To meet the growing demand for hand sanitizer due to the COVID-19 pandemic, La Crosse Distilling Co. is now producing the highly sought after product. (Photo provided by La Crosse Distilling Co.)

This past week, the company has focused on larger volume production and more community outreach. They have put hand sanitizer in the hands of immunocompromised residents, first responders and election officials. 

“This effort was born out of trying to bring positivity to the world,” Staehly said. “It really is a blessing to be able to keep ourselves busy while making a positive impact, too.”