Central Ohio distilleries finding second life in hand sanitizer manufacturing during coronavirus pandemic

In This Together

COLUMBUS (WCMH) – Central Ohio businesses are adapting to unprecedented times and filling new demands created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Saturday, a line of cars stretched around the block to Watershed Distillery, a small bar, restaurant, and distillery tucked into a commercial park in northeast Grandview Heights. It was the third consecutive day Watershed bartenders and distillers were running buckets, boxes and 16-ounce containers of hand sanitizer to eager customers.

“Who knew distilleries could step up and do this?” mused one customer.

The distillery’s new boom in business came just as suddenly as it had left weeks earlier.

Now a decade old and established as a neighborhood eatery and watering hole, Watershed was celebrating a successful quarter in early March. Days later, an executive order closing bars and restaurants forced co-owner Greg Lehman to lay-off close to three dozen employees.

The distillery offered curbside pickup of its popular spirits and even created to-go cocktail kits to supplement the lost business.

Then, in late March, the FDA relaxed rules over which types of alcohol could be used to make hand sanitizer. The change opened the door for ethanol producers, like distilleries, to join the market when the product was in high-demand.

“Morale [was] low, just like everywhere is — we aren’t unique in that. Then, all of a sudden, we get this lifeline of, ‘Hey, we can make sanitizer,’” said Lehman.

Lehman re-hired about eight of his employees, calling on them to mix and bottle sanitizer solution and added curbside sanitizer pickup to the cocktail kit drive-thru already operating.

“A lot of people are coming through and they’re like, ‘I need the bare essentials: hand sanitizer and an old fashioned,’” he laughed.

When the service went live Thursday, it was an instant success. Lehman estimates the distillery sold close to 3,000 gallons of sanitizer on Thursday and Friday alone.

Many customers were happy to have a new source to find sanitizer.

“My wife and I are really trying to be safe during all of this,” said John Thorne, who got in line almost two hours before distribution was open to the public. “We’re down to a really small amount of sanitizer. We tried to order some online and there was just none in stock.”

Customers can call ahead to place an order or drop in during the day. First responders and medical workers receive priority and won’t be limited on bulk orders. They can start picking up products at 10 a.m. daily.

The public is limited to four 16oz pump bottles and one 10 gallon jug per order. They can be picked up from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

You can see a map of the drive-thru route and find answers to frequently asked questions by clicking here.

Middle West Spirits and High Bank Distillery Co. are among other Central Ohio distilleries offering hand sanitizer.

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