Editor’s Note: This article is one in a series on how Fairborn small businesses have weathered and persevered through 2020.
FAIRBORN — As the coronavirus pandemic was reaching its deadliest in the spring, Brad Measel of Stillwrights Distillery received an unusual phone call from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. As shortages of hand sanitizer and other supplies plagued hospitals across the nation, small distilleries had taken up the production of hand sanitizer to fill the gap. Wright-Patterson asked if Stillwrights could do the same.
Initially, they said no.
Measel, along with co-owners Shawn Measel and James Bagford, have run Stillwrights Distillery in Fairborn for nine years, with their products on the shelves for six. The three did their research after the first call with Wright-Patterson. They found the FDA requirements alone were daunting.
“It looked like it might be weeks if not months to get it up and running,” Brad Measel said.
The biggest problem is that the still that they use to make their signature rum and bourbon barely had the capability to make alcohol that concentrated.
“In order to make hand sanitizer, you have to start with a distillate that’s 190 proof,” Brad Measel said. “Our still isn’t designed to do that.”
For all those reasons, the folks at Stillwrights initially said they couldn’t do it. The next day, their contact at Wright-Patt called again, saying the FDA regulations had relaxed. They could get started the next day.
“We were able to forego the registration process completely,” Brad Measel said. “They gave guidelines for a new process that was much easier. At the time we had just made a batch of rum. We were getting ready to bottle it, but we put it back in the still and raised it to 190 proof.”
The process took a long time, due to the limitations of the still. The Measel and Bagford families worked in shifts night and day to get the process done.
“For as long as we’ve been in business, that’s the first time we worked around the clock,” Brad Measel said. “By that point we had been inundated with requests from first responders and other people. Making whiskey is hard work, but we’ve never worked around the clock like that.”
When the time came to bottle the hand sanitizer, there were no hand sanitizer bottles to be found for purchase. Instead, Stillwrights got bottles donated from a local manufacturer.
“They had these huge caps. They looked like Gatorade bottles,” Brad Measel joked.
Regardless of what the container looked like, they got the job done. The distillery was able to donate some of it, but they also got help in the form of a local church, which bought much of the hand sanitizer for the purpose of donating it.
Volunteers from Crossroads church also came in and helped with the bottling process. Brad Measel noted that the participation and assistance from the community was an unexpected positive from the pandemic.
The first 40,000 ounces of hand sanitizer went straight to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. In addition, they began to get requests from Fairborn police, fire, EMS, and the post office.
“I won’t lie, the first 100,000 ounces smelled like rum,” Brad Measel admitted. “We made it for about a month and a half. Once the big stores got it back, we stopped making it.”
Even after the brief foray into hand sanitizer making, Stillwrights stayed open as an essential business.
Throughout the rest of the year on the business side of things, sale of spiced rum and bourbon decreased, but sales increased from liquor stores. Some of their normal business operations were curbed, including their Saturday distillery tour, though they have since brought back the tour at reduced capacity. Throughout the pandemic, the company did not take advantage of much of the CARES Act assistance available through the city.
“We did apply for and receive a PPP loan,” Brad Measel noted. “Some of the other things we didn’t feel like we were in need enough.”
The city of Fairborn offered CARES Act funding for small business loans at multiple times throughout the year.
“We were doing OK, we were surviving and it didn’t feel right [applying for it],” Brad Measel said. “I felt a little squeamish even getting the PPP loan.”
“Like you hear about big corporations that got millions of dollars,” he said. “How do they sleep?”
Looking to 2021, the distillery will likely be handling an uncertain business landscape, even as they consider scaling up. Brad Measel cited the recent Pennsylvania liquor ban as a reason for caution in the coming year.
“We’re kind of in a funny position right now; we’re pushing the limit of production, so if we did more sales, we couldn’t keep up,” he said. “We can’t up sales and marketing before we scale up production.”
Nonetheless, the distillery has had things to celebrate this year. Throughout its experience making hand sanitizer, the distillery has made connections outside their normal sphere of influence.
“It felt like we were able to help the community in a different way than we ever had,” Brad Measel said. “A lot of members of the community look down on alcohol consumption. We met a lot of friends who never would have stepped foot in this place otherwise.”
Reach London Bishop at 937-502-4532 or follow @LBishopFDH on Twitter.