As the COVID-19 crisis took hold in March, the folks at Devils Creek Distillery were not just concerned about their business—they were worried for their community.
Hand sanitizer in particular was proving hard to come by in Mammoth Lakes, and the Devils Creek family (Luan and John are majority owners; son Clayton is head distiller) wanted to do their part. They had heard about the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau issuing emergency regulations allowing distilleries to start making hand sanitizer, and they had noticed other distillers shifting resources to help out. They decided to follow suit.
“Given the industry we’re in, we felt that this was the best way we could contribute to our community,” says daughter-in-law and spokesperson Aleksandra Mendel. “Producing hand sanitizer was an easy decision for us.”
Devils Creek Distillery targeted making 250 gallons in six weeks, Clayton notes, with “the goal being to meet the immediate needs of Inyo and Mono counties, while giving the larger manufacturers time to spin up production and let the supply chain catch up.”
They already had plenty of fermentable ingredients on hand—corn, barley, wheat, and sugar—and they were able to shuffle their production schedule and bring one smaller still out of storage to create the sanitizer. Getting a few other ingredients, such as glycerin and hydrogen peroxide, was a little more challenging, but they got some help from members of the community—such as Mammoth Brewing Co., which has been donating beer for distilling, while Crowley Candle Co. and Bath Bar donated bottles.
In a little more than a month since they began, Devils Creek had already donated 200 gallons of its sanitizer to the local hospital as well as to paramedics, fire departments, county health officials, and sheriff’s offices in both Inyo and Mono counties.
“We then filled bottles and donated to our local food bank for locals to pick up,” says Mendel. As of now, they still have no plans to sell it. “It’s the least we could do, really.”
A Statewide Phenomenon
Distillers across California have responded in similar ways. “Our members have all responded in different ways,” says Cris Steller, executive director of the California Artisanal Distillers Guild, but with the common goal of distributing “thousands of gallons of hand sanitizer and hard-surface spray to keep people from getting sick.”
Steller’s own distillery, Amador and Dry Diggings Distillery, has been producing hand sanitizer for people in El Dorado County. In San Diego, both Cutwater Spirits and Skrewball Whiskey are giving sanitizer to frontline workers. In Paso Robles, CalWise Spirits is selling its new sanitizer at cost to government agencies and nonprofits, and selling limited amounts (to ensure there’s enough for everyone) to its curbside customers. Its neighbor, KROBAR Distillery, is donating one bottle of sanitizer to first responders for every public purchase of a bottle.
Other distillers are focusing their efforts on producing hand sanitizer for the general public—and getting creative in the process. Napa Valley Distillery is making a 75-proof hand sanitizer out of distilled grape and grain spirits, mixed with aloe and essences such as lime and spearmint natural oils.
In Monterey, Doc Pepe's Lab started off making hand sanitizer just for first responders, but now sells to the public, infusing its 80-percent-alcohol version with aloe vera, lavender, and tea tree oils. In Los Angeles, botanic gin and vodka maker Amass is selling a hand sanitizer accented with eucalyptus, cloves, cinnamon, and allspice, and which is based on the medieval “Four Thieves” recipe that was once thought to ward off the bubonic plague.
In Anaheim, Blinking Owl Distillery has created an 80-percent-alcohol Dirty Bird Hand Sanitizer, a cheeky nod to its Tasting Room restroom signs that read “Don't Be a Dirty Bird, Wash Your Talons."
“Our Tasting Room generates 90 percent of the revenue for the distillery,” says Blinking Owl co-owner Robin Christenson, “so when it was shut down due to local mandates, we had to pivot and thankfully, this was a fairly natural segue.” The process has led to Blinking Owl joining forces with other Orange County businesses—Bella Terra Oils had bottles to offer, and Golden Road Brewing and Bottle Logic Brewing donated beer to use for distilling. They’re finding a new groove, Christenson says, and “once things aren't so hectic, we'd love to make sanitizers reminiscent of the spirits in our Tasting Room.”
A Marathon, Not a Sprint
Meanwhile, in Mammoth Lakes, a small town that has asked visitors to stay away for now due to limited medical resources, the Devils Creek team is fine-tuning its output and establishing something of a regular rhythm.
“During the first month it was definitely about making as much as possible and getting it into the community as quickly as possible,” says Clayton, “while juggling that with family responsibilities and not getting too burned out, tired, or, most important, sick.”
Now, he says, they’re also restarting bourbon production, “in an attempt to return to something resembling normalcy. The last couple weeks have seen the urgency lessen, but we’re mindful that this is a marathon, not a sprint.”
Best of all, Mendel says, the family remains on track to meet its goal of giving away 250 gallons of the precious commodity.