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Sanitizing spirit: Farmer-owned distillery crafts new recipe

Finding labels and bottles has been a challenge for Kennay Farms Distilling’s hand sanitizer production lines. While the distillery’s bottling machine is being used to bottle the product, labeling for the bottles of hand sanitizer must be done by hand.
Finding labels and bottles has been a challenge for Kennay Farms Distilling’s hand sanitizer production lines. While the distillery’s bottling machine is being used to bottle the product, labeling for the bottles of hand sanitizer must be done by hand.

ROCHELLE, Ill — They are used to brewing up batches of beer, vodka and gin, but on March 18, the Kennay Farms Distilling team received a new order — and a new recipe.

“The word went around that maybe distilleries could maybe make hand sanitizer,” said Aubrey Quinn, director of marketing for the Rochelle distillery and the daughter of Rick and Doris Kennay, the distillery’s founders and owners. The Kennays farm near Ashton.

They opened the distillery just a year ago in the former Hub Theater in downtown Rochelle and had been busy with a tasting room, where guests could sample and buy the craft beers, vodka and gin being brewed up in the floor-to-ceiling brewery and distillery, visible from the tasting room.

That was until coronavirus and the effects on public life changed things.

A stay-at-home order issued by Gov. J.B. Pritzker on March 20 effectively closed bars and restaurants to in-house customers, but allows for carryouts and curbside delivery.

With the need for hand sanitizer increasing, distilleries, with plenty of the basic ingredient — alcohol — on hand, wondered about transitioning to the new product.

“It was not legal for us to do this until we got an email at 5:15 p.m. Wednesday from our governing agency, the TTB,” the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, Quinn said.

Upon getting the OK, the Kennay Farms team, led by Rick Kennay, kicked into gear to switch over to making hand sanitizer. Kennay sourced the other two ingredients, glycerin and hydrogen peroxide, that are the basic ingredients of hand sanitizer.

“The boys were on a bourbon run until 5 p.m. on Wednesday. They were totally switched over and by noon on Thursday, we were producing hand sanitizer,” Quinn said.

On The Move

Packaging has been a major limiting factor. With a need for bulk packaging, this farm family improvised and turned to seed totes as a way to transport bulk quantities of ingredients, as well as the hand sanitizer itself.

Quinn reached out to a local farmer, Mike Denton, Princeton, and owner of Hefty Seeds in Princeton, for help locating more totes.

“They called and told me what they were doing and that they needed totes, as the most practical way to get bulk quantities of the product out to the people who need it, like first responders,” Denton said.

He made some calls and put out the request for help on social media.

“This time of the year, nobody wants to give up any totes, but I’ve had people call and offer 10 or 15 at a time. I had 40 at one of our warehouses, so we’re bringing those up and we’ll see what they need next week,” Denton said.

Switching production over to hand sanitizer went quickly.

“The production side of things was a relatively easy transition. It’s been the packaging that’s more difficult. We used all the same equipment and we did the bottling in our bottling room,” Quinn said.

Labeling of the smaller glass bottles is done by hand. She said two of the tasting room’s bartenders were called in to help, as well as several family members.

Helping Hands

The first batches of the sanitizer were donated to local first responders and healthcare providers who are or could be dealing with coronavirus.

“We were prioritizing the healthcare, public services and first responders, so we spent all day Saturday driving around and dropping off donations. We certainly wanted to donate to people who are on the front lines,” Quinn said.

The distillery continues to sell its beers by the growler, as well as vodka and gin. Now, it will be adding hand sanitizer to that list of products for sale.

“We are still open for carryout hours. Vodka, gin and beer by the growler can still be carried out, and we will continue to have carryouts for as long as we are allowed to. Now we are also going to open up sales of hand sanitizer to the public. We wanted to make sure we had plenty for the healthcare workers and first responders, and we’ve done that. We have allocated plenty of supply to that,” Quinn said.

She said for the team at the distillery, many of whom come from farms, the long hours from Wednesday through the weekend and now continuing, aren’t anything new.

“We are pretty used to working long hours and extremely hard for short durations of time, coming from the farming side of things. If you go six days in a row with hardly any sleep, that’s what you do. You sleep when it starts raining, so we are used to gearing up quickly and working until the job gets done,” Quinn said.

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