Detroit City Distillery’s Founder on Transitioning to Hand Sanitizer

Amid the COVID-19 crisis, entrepreneurs prove Detroit really does hustle harder
Detroit City Distillery
Photograph courtesy of Detroit City Distillery

Innovators they are, Detroit entrepreneurs are reinventing their business models in light of the coronavirus pandemic. In part, these shifts are attempts to make ends meet while business is low, and in another sense, they’re attempts to support fellow Detroiters especially impacted by these trying times. Restaurants like Folk and Sister Pie are opening as pseudo grocers, offering dairy products, produce, and paper goods to the community. Fashion designers like Katerina Bocci are leveraging their sewing skills to create hospital masks. And in the craft cocktail arena, local breweries and distilleries are transitioning their focus from spirits to hand sanitizers.

Griffin Claw Brewing Co. is providing complimentary, travel-size hand sanitizers with every curbside carryout order. The company has also partnered with Valentine Distilling Co. to stock government agencies, hospitals, and essential workers with larger batches during the crisis. Atwater Brewery has concocted topical antiseptic sanitizers by the gallon for health care providers and first responders, as well as limited supplies of 4-ounce bottles available for purchase at Atwater’s Detroit location.

By the end of this week, Michael Forsyth and the team at Detroit City Distillery in Eastern Market will have distributed more than 1,700 gallons of hand sanitizer to hospitals, nursing homes, homeless and youth shelters, police and fire departments, ambulance networks, postal workers, utility workers, and local nonprofits such as Samaritas and Goodwill. Here, the founder shares his inspiration for the project and how the crisis has impacted operations at Detroit City Distillery.

Hour Detroit: What inspired you to take on this new initiative?

Michael Forsyth: Well, I think that when you’re called to step up and serve a greater purpose to help the public, you have to do it. That’s the Detroit way. It’s been the history of how this city has responded to times of crisis. It’s The Arsenal of Democracy after all, so we’re just trying to do our part because we can. We have the materials, we have the know-how, and the need is great so we have tried to pivot to serve as many people we can.

Was there a lightbulb moment that brought you to this idea?

Everything has moved very quickly — in all facets. When we saw that the urgency of the situation was beginning to escalate, we were also balancing the reality of having to shut down our normal operations at our tasting room and in our events space at The Whiskey Factory. People started to ask if we have the capacity to make hand sanitizer, so we quickly pivoted.

What are the challenges that have come with making this transition at Detroit City Distillery?

At the time, we legally weren’t allowed to do this and then the federal government issued an order that allowed distilleries to produce hand sanitizer. We’re in the business of making alcohol and alcohol is the main ingredient for hand sanitizer, but there were additional needs. We had to procure glycerin and hydrogen peroxide, which are the other two ingredients necessary to make the approved formula to meet the World Health Organization specifications. We had to make decisions to spend thousands of dollars to procure materials while at the same time losing tens of thousands of dollars every couple days or so. It’s been a real challenge, but we knew the need was there and we knew that we could fill it if we could get the materials. So, we just made the call. Part of the exhilarating nature of being an entrepreneur is, you are small and nimble and you have to act fast — but it’s also terrifying. We usually make whiskey and gin and vodka and now we have to shift to make hand sanitizer? It’s pretty wild.

Once you decided to take that leap, what came next?

Once the federal government issued the memo saying that distilleries could make hand sanitizers, it provided the formula to which we could make them, so step two was procuring the necessary materials in order to do it correctly. Then it was about getting it to the people who have the greatest need as fast as possible. It’s a unique business-to-business exercise within the private sector of working on procurement both on the material front and then on the distribution side, getting it to places like hospitals and municipalities, police departments, and nursing homes. We’re just figuring it out and taking it day by day.

How did you decide who to distribute to?

The City of Detroit Police Department actually reached out first and that made us realize that we have to take care of our frontline responders. I reached out to the State of Michigan’s Pure Michigan Business Connect office and asked who might need hand sanitizer. They immediately put us in touch with an organization that needed it and that’s how we allocated our first batch. Then we posted on social media and created our email, letting people know that we’re trying to get it to the people who need it most and the response has been really overwhelming. We’re trying to prioritize hospitals, health care institutions — whether that be nursing homes or folks who run youth and homeless shelters — and frontline responders — police department, fire department, EMS. But we’ve learned that there are so many other people. There are the U.S. Postal Service workers who still have to deliver mail. There are folks in the utilities space that keep our lights on. Folks serving meals to kids at schools who depend on that for their livelihood. It’s really opened our eyes to who is serving to keep us in a happy space and so that’s who we’re trying to get it to also.

Do you have any intention of selling hand sanitizer to the general public or even incorporating it into your business once we’re past this crisis?

It’s too hard for me to say that right now. We’ve been talking with the head procurement officer for every major regional hospital system and we’re trying to take care of them first. We’ve also been communicating with other distilleries across the state to see what role they might be able to play in terms of meeting that need. We’re just doing as much as we can, given our capacity, and it’s been a really empowering process. It has been, without question, one of the most challenging few days of my life, but we’re up for the challenge. Again, it’s in our DNA. We’re Detroiters who make things. Now, we’re making things to help people and so we’re all in.

What does the rest of your business look like right now? Is this your sole focus?

This has been a really difficult past few weeks for everybody in the beverage and restaurant sector. What it looks like for us right now is all our operations — our tasting room, events space, and tours that have on-premise consumption — are shut down indefinitely until at least April 13 per the last executive order from Governor Whitmer. That’s forced us to do really difficult things. We’ve had to temporarily lay off all our bar and events staff, which is the worst feeling ever as a small business owner who treats their employees like family. Our sales team is working remotely to do sales to liquor stores — we found that maybe there’s even greater demand than normal within the liquor store and grocery store sector for alcohol [laughs] — and then we’re still making whiskey every day and balancing that with making hand sanitizer as well. And we’re going to keep doing that until our supplies run out or until it stops making sense. We’re just trying to survive. Hopefully, we are here when it is all done, and we are stronger than ever. I think these are moments that define business and so we feel empowered by the situation even though it’s a scary one. There will be one hell of a party when it is done so we’re looking forward to seeing everybody there and making cocktails for them again. That sort of stuff keeps us going.