Rock Town Distillery Rolls into Hand Sanitizer

Patricia O’Connell

Rock Town Distillery, Arkansas’ first legal distillery since Prohibition, is celebrating its 10th anniversary in an unusual way.

Phil Brandon, who founded the Little Rock-based business in 2010, decided in March to add hand sanitizer to his repertoire of craft spirits made from local ingredients. He spoke with “This Is Capitalism” about how starting an auxiliary line of business during the COVID-19 pandemic.

How did you get started in the spirits business?

I was pursuing a passion—I was passionate about whiskey and thought nothing could be cooler than actually making it. I have an engineering degree and had worked in industrial automation for several years, so I understood how industrial and manufacturing processes work and heat transfer and chemistry.

And since we started in 2010 we’ve added various other whiskies, rum, and gin, and have a tasting room and bar in the SoMa area of Little Rock.

How and why did you start making hand sanitizer?

I had been on a business trip from March 12 to 17th, when things really started accelerating nationwide regarding COVID. By the time I got back to Little Rock on the 17th, all the restaurants were closed. In the meantime, I had read that other distilleries were making hand sanitizer. I thought, “We’ve got lots of alcohol, the main ingredient in hand sanitizer. What else would we need?”

I looked up the raw ingredients according to the World Health Organization guidelines and said, “Sure we could to this. Why don’t we make a few gallons of it and let people fill up their own containers?” I didn’t have any bottles on hand that were suitable for hand sanitizer.

Was that the main obstacle to distribution at that time?

For sure. It wasn’t lack of demand! We started on the 17th, and it hasn’t slowed down since. People just kept coming and coming. We initially gave away some 200 gallons, and then we started selling it as well as donating it. Frankly, hospitals and first responders and businesses like UPS, FedEx, and the postal service all need this and have money to spend on it, so I was able to charge for it and sell in bulk to them.

We’re not shipping it anywhere. It’s come to the distillery and get it. We’re basically doing bulk orders by email for people coming to pick it up. We did find some 375 ml bottles that are suitable for the product so we’re selling it to individuals who want to get it at $8 per bottle. They’re able to buy one per person per day; Otherwise the hoarders would come. But since we started, we’ve had a steady stream every day out the door for people buying it by the bottle.

How hard has it been to get the raw ingredients? 

You need high-proof ethanol. We have the ability to make it but we also have been able to source it so we’ve done a little bit of both. The main ingredient in that is corn, which is plentiful. The rest is hydrogen peroxide and glycerin, and both of those are readily available. Actually, it’s been more of a challenge to keep up with demand. We’ve been making close to 1,500 gallons of hand sanitizer a week.

What effect has this auxiliary business had on your main business?

Our liquor business is way up too. We’re working 6-7 days a week to do both. The good news is I haven’t had to lay any people off.  A big part of our business is tourism and the bar that we operate, which does tasting and tours and private events. There are probably nine people in the organization who would be doing that and they’ve had to shift gears and now they’re bottling hand sanitizer and helping to fulfill bulk orders. One of them said the other day, “I just wish someone would ask me to mix them a drink. I really miss that.” And I understand that, I really do.

Overall, how is morale?

Everyone is exhausted and stressed because everyone is working incredibly hard and these are stressful times, but we’re taking all the proper precautions with distancing and wearing face masks, washing our hands, sanitizing our areas where people are coming in to buy sanitizer. But morale is strong, because we’re all very fortunate and thankful that we’re still able to operate and have jobs and pay people their full wage.

And as a business owner, I feel good that we’re making a product that people really need and I’ve been able to keep everyone on payroll. And even though we’re a small business, we’ve been able to donate the product in proportion to our size, and that feels good, too.