Iron Fish Distillery makes hand sanitizer during COVID-19 pandemic
By Aubrey Ann Parker
The sky is overcast. The landscape is brown, and the trees are barren. Patches of dirty snow linger, as the last remnants of winter begin to recede, creating mud puddles on the dirt road and driveway. A tall, thin, middle-aged man in a mask crosses the parking lot and takes a plastic jar from another middle-aged man, Kevin Schneider, who works at a urology clinic in Dearborn
“We actually had four bottles of hand sanitizer stolen from the bathroom in our office,” says Schneider, who was “Up North” for the weekend.
Meanwhile, a golden sedan pulls in, and a spectacled woman in a ponytail, a zip-up hoodie, and leggings gets out with a glass Mason jar.
“My step-mom has COPD and oxygen that she uses at night-time,” says Savannah Hunt of Arcadia. “And I have three kids; I actually just had to cancel my daughter’s surgery down in Grand Rapids. It’s too much of a risk right now.”
She is also here—at the end of a dirt road, in seemingly the middle of nowhere—for hand sanitizer.
“I haven’t been able to find any since all of this started,” she says
It becomes a bit hard to hear her at the end, as Scott Griner steers a John Deere tractor from the road into the parking lot, then through to the back of the buildings. The tractor is carrying a huge plastic cube that is at least 80 percent full as it sloshes back and forth; maple sap, collected from the trees on the farm by Griner, a fourth-generation maple syrup producer.
Meanwhile, a white SUV parks out on the road, and a man in a panama hat walks over, keeping more than six feet of distance from the others.
“It’s nice to know that they are doing this,” says Gary Leucchetti of Wexford County. “Mostly, I wanted to make a donation; that’s the real reason I’m here, but I will take a bottle of hand sanitizer.”
The tall man returns with Schneider’s plastic jar, now full of a slightly yellow, translucent, viscous material.
“OK, who’s next?” he asks.
Since Iron Fish Distillery opened its doors in the fall of 2016, it has become a popular destination in the region. The venture began, at least theoretically, in the spring of 2014, when Sarah Anderson sent her husband, Richard, on a 60th birthday trip to Scotland with her brothers-in-law, David Wallace and Craig Maxwell. They were touring several 300-year-old distilleries, including a farm-based distillery, on the island of Islay—famous for its “whiskey tourism”—when the taste of smokey peat infected the men with a novel idea: why not build a spirits distillery on the 119-acre farm that Wallace and his wife, Heidi Bolger, had recently acquired on the Benzie-Manistee county line, near Thompsonville?
The idea stuck, and now, six years after the Scotland trip and nearly four years after opening, Iron Fish is known for its distinctive spirits, yummy craft cocktails, gourmet snacks, food trucks, live music, community events, art exhibits, and relaxing countryside setting. The tranquil Betsie River meanders nearby the rural property, and many of the spirits are made from the grains that are being grown just across the dirt driveway—a real grain-to-bottle operation, quite literally from the ground up, on this Michigan Environmentally Assured Farm.
Some initially called them crazy, locating a tasting room on a three-mile dirt thoroughfare: “Nobody’s going going to drive all the way out there in the rainy/ pothole/winter season.” But those critics could not have been more wrong. Iron Fish has built a loyal following, and as demand has grown—both on-site and through distribution—the business had to expand to keep up, with construction of a new rickhouse for storage in 2018.
“We grow the grain here, we harvest it, we clean it, and then we distill and produce a full range of spirits,” Richard Anderson (now 66, the “tall man” in the introduction above) says of the distillery, which sells throughout Michigan, as well as in the state of Illinois and in Park City, Utah, with hopes to expand into Colorado later this year. “[We] run a major end-destination, where folks come and visit and bring their families and have a great time, enjoying entertainment, spirit, and great food.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic began to hit Michigan, Iron Fish Distillery’s tasting room was continuing to serve food and cocktails until close on Sunday, March 16. But, like many local establishments, Iron Fish chose to halt dining operations even before Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order closed everything but take-out on Monday, March 17. (And they were not serving take-out until very recently; May 15.)
“As a small family-run business, we feel a deep responsibility to help flatten the curve and lower the potential health risks of COVID-19 to our amazing team, customers, and the greater community,” the distillery’s Facebook page explained. They laid off more than two-dozen employees, who were then able to collect unemployment, and they donated about 10 boxes of fresh fruit, vegetables, and dairy from their now-closed kitchen to the food pantry at Benzie Area Christian Neighbors (BACN).
Things were quiet for a few days, and then the distillery made another big announcement on Saturday, March 21—Iron Fish was giving away ethanol-based hand sanitizer from 12 to 6 p.m. to anyone who showed up with their own eight-ounce container, or they had a few small containers on-hand.
“Sanitizer is free to the public, but we will be accepting any contributions, which will be 100 percent donated to our staff,” reads the initial Facebook announcement, which got more than 400 “likes” and more than 400 shares.
With only three employees plus the owners still working, there had been a major shift in operations earlier in the week. On Wednesday, March 18, an idea had begun brewing—or rather, distilling.
“We started becoming aware of the real critical shortage of hand sanitizer,” Anderson says. “Within about four or five days [of closing the tasting room], we went from servicing folks with spirits—making and producing spirits—to figuring out how to make hand sanitizer.”
Filling A Need
Back in March, when COVID-19 began to hit communities in the United States, not only was toilet paper hard to come by but shelves were lacking hand sanitizer, as well.
All over the country, including in Northern Michigan, demand was outstripping supply from traditional suppliers, like Purell. For instance, Family Fare in Frankfort ran out of hand sanitizer on March 13, before it ran out of toilet paper. (There is now a bin in aisle nine with hand sanitizer, as of print time, however.)
When unable to buy sanitizer locally, many turned to the internet, where price-gouging was occurring by third-party sellers. (After much criticism, Amazon and eBay later cracked down on profiteering, including the viral story of two brothers who had bought nearly 18,000 bottles of hand sanitizer across 1,300 miles of Tennessee and Kentucky, selling them for between $8 and $70 each, according to The New York Times.)
Fortunately, many distilleries all across the country quickly jumped into action to help.
We will make two or three gallons, mostly for people we know, Richard Anderson remembers thinking. But within just a few days, Iron Fish had produced a 55-gallon drum of hand sanitizer, all of which they distributed for free within about a week.
That first Saturday, anyone could come to get up to eight ounces of hand sanitizer for free, though donations were encouraged for a fund for the distillery’s laid-off workers, employees who might be going through a cash crisis or emergency. However, as word continued to spread when local news organizations picked up the story, the demand became overwhelming.
After around 36 hours, Iron Fish was now only going to be servicing healthcare professionals, first responders, and immuno-compromised individuals, as well as the “critical” services industries. They asked that people message them on Facebook, Instagram, or email to schedule a pick-up time. They were very cautious not to let anyone into the facility; Richard Anderson and his wife, Sarah, would meet them in the dirt parking lot.
“We’re seeing a need in the community that is really severe,” Richard Anderson told The Betsie Current back in March. “And, of course, the community is preparing for what’s to come over the next two to three weeks. So, to watch a 70-year-old mother coming in with an eight-ounce jar, because her daughter is a home healthcare nurse, and Mom’s worried about her daughter’s safety—those emotions run both ways.”
But, as we all now know, the pandemic dragged on for longer than “two to three weeks.”
What began as a pet project to help a few friends and neighbors quickly morphed into something bigger when the Iron Fish team figured out how to produce 500-gallon batches for larger distribution—and they found that the need was definitely there.
Over the course of eight weeks, Iron Fish Distillery has produced and distributed approximately 3,000 gallons of hand sanitizer throughout the state, including the donation of more than 150 gallons to various agencies, non-profits, and the general public that first week.
“We partnered with the Mackinac Island Community Foundation by donating four-ounce bottles to every resident living on the island,” says Sarah Anderson (57). “We distributed and sold more than 500 gallons to Upper Peninsula agencies and essential industries. We supplied Flagstar Banks state-wide, and many of the Charter Spectrum crews state-wide.”
Closer to home, Iron Fish’s sanitizer has been used at the Traverse City drive-up COVID-19 testing site, as well as throughout all of the Munson Healthcare system, including Paul Oliver Memorial Hospital in Frankfort—in fact, more than half of what has been produced has been shipped to Munson facilities. Additionally, local restaurant and grocery workers could also be found using Iron Fish sanitizer, along with first-responders in both Benzie and Manistee counties.
“There’s no way that we would have sold that much ethanol in spirit over the same period,” Anderson says. “Maybe a normal [non-COVID] July, but not March or April.”
Most Memorable Moment
In sum, Iron Fish Distillery has served a whole host of individuals, businesses, and non-profit organizations with a much different product than what usually comes out of its shiny, stainless steel and copper tanks. But Sarah Anderson says that one sticks out as “our most satisfying and memorable moment.”
It centers on a nurse who has been working 80 to 100 hours per week between four jobs during the pandemic: the emergency room at Munson Hospital in Traverse City, plus North Flight, Benzie County, and Missaukee County EMS.
“On her own, after a night shift, she would come and pick up a donation of a couple of gallons each week,” Anderson says. “She would put them on the break room table [in the Munson emergency room] to make sure that all of the nurses could bring some home to their families.”
Embarrassingly, it takes me a few minutes of reflection before I realize that I know this woman.
“That is my cousin, Nikia Parker, isn’t it?” I ask Anderson.
This is the part where I, as the author of this article and the editor of this newspaper, should put in a full disclosure. So here goes:
After our initial interview with Richard Anderson on Monday, March 23, I texted my cousin before I left the parking lot to let her know that Iron Fish was giving away hand sanitizer to medical professionals. I was not sure if she needed any, but I figured that it would not hurt to let her know, in case she or any of her colleagues were running low and could not find any in stores; I thought that it might be worth the extra 45 minutes it would add on to her already-45-minute commute between her main job at the Traverse City E.R. and her home in Manton.
She immediately responded that Munson nurses are required to have hand sanitizer on themselves at all times, in order to use it between patients, so this would be immensely helpful. I did not hear from her again on the subject, however, until I reached out a few days ago, after realizing that she was the subject of Iron Fish Distillery’s “most satisfying and memorable moment.”
As is her nature, my cousin deflected the attention from herself almost immediately, instead singing the praises of the Iron Fish team.
“They’ve been so awesome,” Nikia Parker (38) says. “I always showed up at the weirdest hours, because of my shifts, and they were always so accommodating of my schedule. And did they tell you about the syrup?”
For those readers who do not know, Iron Fish Distillery makes a bourbon that is finished in barrels that have been steeped in maple syrup from the neighboring Griner Family Sugar Bush farm; they also sell jars of the maple syrup that has been aged in the bourbon barrels.
So, in Greek rhetorical fashion, this article ends where it began: with maple syrup.
After trying unsuccessfully over the course of about a week to connect with the Iron Fish team for the first time, Nikia Parker’s busy schedule finally loosened enough for her to connect with Richard Anderson by phone to arrange a pick-up time for hand sanitizer. She told him that she worked for the emergency room in Traverse City, and that she would like to leave enough hand sanitizer on the break room for the 18 people per shift.
“When I showed up, not only was there hand sanitizer, there was 18 bottles of maple syrup,” Parker says.
She tells me that they are planning to have a pancake and waffle bar set up one day in the E.R. break room—once the threat of COVID-19 dies down and restrictions loosen—so that all three shifts of 18 people per shift will be able to enjoy the donated syrup.
“People have been so generous during this time,” Parker says. “We’ve been taking pictures of everything that gets donated, including the hand sanitizer and the syrup; we’ve got the pictures rotating on a big screen in the break room. Sometimes, you’re having a bad day, or there is someone who is just being really nasty about all of this [pandemic restrictions], but you go in there, and you look at the screen, and you see that, for every one person being nasty, there is a whole community of people who have our backs. It’s really awesome.”
Want to purchase your own hand sanitizer from Iron Fish Distillery? Check out Store.IronFishDistillery.com to find four-ounce, 16-ounce, and one-gallon sizes.
Featured Photo: Wexford County’s Gary Leucchetti receives a bottle of hand sanitizer from Richard Anderson, co-owner of Iron Fish Distillery, which has switched its production model since the COVID-19 pandemic came to Michigan. The distillery has made thousands of gallons of hand sanitizer fir local healthcare facilities, first responders, and essential businesses, in addition to the general public. “I couldn’t find any in my local grocery store,” Leucchetti says. “It’s nice to know that they are doing this.” Photo by Mackenna Kelly.