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Port Billups, left, director of environmental service for Methodist Hospitals, picking up hand sanitizer from Andrew Howell, middle, co-owner, and Ari Klafter, head distiller at Thornton Distilling Company on Tuesday, March 24. (Carrie Steinweg/H-F Chronicle)

Although the world is experiencing something that has never happened in our lifetimes, we are seeing bits of history repeating itself during the current coronavirus outbreak. During World War II, factories and facilities shifted their production to help in the war effort. As during that time, everyone is pitching in to do what they can to help us get through the situation.

The recent state-issued order shutting down all dine-in restaurants and bars caused Thornton Distilling Company and its tasting room, The Well, to close. The owner and head distiller decided to “pivot” and turn their spirits into a desperately needed product in fighting the spread of coronavirus — hand sanitizer.

“Never did I think as a distiller I’d be making hand sanitizer, but we were in a position to help,” said Ari Klafter, head distiller at Thornton Distilling Company. “Some of the ingredients we already had, so we wanted to step in and help the community.”

With their batch of high-proof spirit as the main ingredient, they are now using the World Health Organization’s formula to produce hand sanitizer that is being provided free of charge to area fire and police departments, hospitals and senior homes. 


“The most difficult part for Jake (Weiss), my co-owner, and I, has been having to let go of our bar staff,” said Andrew Howell. “We built up a program we’re really proud of and we built a family of employees that are really close to us. Letting them go is extremely difficult. We’re just trying to make our way through this precarious time.”

Howell has set up a fundraising page to help his employees. Anyone who wishes to contribute, can donate to the Well Staff Emergency Relief Fund on Go Fund Me.

Howell still hopes to be able to make some of the hand sanitizer they’re producing available to the public, but first priority is going to first responders and seniors. He also is working on finding a way to safely distribute it to the public when they have the capacity to do so. More supplies are on order that will allow Howell and Klafler to increase production.

So far they’ve supplied to seven fire departments in the area, five police departments and multiple hospitals and senior care facilities. They continue to get requests daily.

Port Billups, director of environmental services with Methodist Hospitals in Indiana stopped in on a recent afternoon to pick up half gallon jugs of the sanitizer to deliver to the Gary campus.

“I’m really proud of our industry. So many other distilleries are making hand sanitizer now and are doing this for the good of their community,” Howell said. “The distilleries are also coming together and helping each other by sharing information on how to produce it and on procuring materials.”

The coronavirus put on hold the distillery’s long-awaited distribution launch of their bottled products. So far it has been available only from their tasting room and distribution to markets and liquor stores in March was to begin. 

Starting March 27, they will begin offering bottles of their pecan whiskey and gin for curbside pick-up, which will be their only stream of revenue until the dine-in ban is lifted and bars and restaurants can re-open their dining rooms. To coordinate a pick-up order, call 708-877-6222.


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