By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
LECLAIRE — Brothers Ryan and Garrett Burchett own a thriving micro-distillery that produces small-batch, premium distilled vodka, gin and whiskey made from locally sourced grains. But the required temporary closure of many Iowa businesses to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 threatened the future of Mississippi River Distilling Company.
“There were prayers going up,” said Ryan Burchett, a deacon candidate and member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Davenport. He prayed to trust God “wherever this is going to take me. If this business folds, it’s been a good run. I trust whatever is next for me and my family will be positive.”
Then he and his brother learned about two government agencies coordinating efforts to allow distilleries like Mississippi River Distilling to convert beverage alcohol to make hand sanitizer to combat the spread of the coronavirus. The Federal Drug Administration and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau provided guidance as well as an approved formula, Ryan said.
He and his brother converted the distillery, affectionately named “Rose,” into a hand sanitizer production facility. “We had no idea of the demand, the huge need locally,” Ryan said. “We’re getting calls from all over the country.” The brothers are managing logistics, from production to distribution, on the fly. “We essentially started a new business in the midst of an incredible demand,” Ryan said.
Now a crew of four, including the two brothers, work 12- to 14-hour days to produce hand sanitizer for businesses and industries in the region and beyond. Their customers include Deere & Co., Arconic Davenport Works, Scott County, the Rock Island Arsenal, The HON Company and others.
The product is sold in 55-gallon drums and one-gallon jugs. Demand for smaller quantities prompted the brothers to work with retailers such as K&K True Value Hardware in Bettendorf and Simply Soothing in Columbus Junction to sell the hand sanitizer to people looking for smaller quantities.
“We’re trying to find outlets and ways we can get it out to people to keep our customers and employees as safe as possible,” Ryan said. Trucking companies, railroads and other industries that have employees in and out of vehicles and interacting with others are the ones who really need the hand sanitizer on a regular basis, he added. Customers pick up orders on a staggered basis for safety purposes.
Mississippi River Distilling employs around 15 people and most of them are able to continue working as part of the new venture to produce hand sanitizer, Ryan said. A sales person in Chicago handles all of the phone call inquiries. Another employee processes orders and invoices from home. Still another employee is responsible for the website. “We have employees who used to bartend and give tours … (the new business) is another way to keep people busy.” The business also has been awarded a $25,000 grant from Iowa’s Small Business Relief Grant Program to assist companies financially impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
Just a few weeks ago, Ryan thought he would need to put out his resume. Now the company he started 10 years ago with this brother is going gangbusters. “I don’t think God chose me to make hand sanitizer,” Ryan said. “I’ve said a lot of prayers of thanksgiving for this opportunity to keep things rolling.”
“This is such a win-win situation, for the community and for the employees to shift gears to do this thing,” Ryan said. “We are a family business … we’re all going to do what we’ve got to do because it’s important to all of us. I can’t say enough for the people we have working here.”
His wife, Monica, and their kids have also been supportive of the distillery’s temporary transition to a hand sanitizer production facility. “My wife has been a gift in that regard — whether it’s rolling with the business or the diaconate. She probably deserves the credit for keeping most of this thing together.”
Retailers such as Simply Soothing also see their collaboration with Mississippi River Distilling as a win-win situation. “They reached out to us. It’s been a great little partnership,” Ryan said. Alicia Bright, shipping and receiving supervisor for Simply Soothing, said the company had been searching for the ingredients to produce its own hand sanitizer. In that effort, the company connected with Mississippi River Distilling, and now sells the product that the distillery produces. Business has been booming as a result. “It’s like bug season started early,” Alicia said, referring to demand for the popular Simply Soothing Bug Soother Spray.
Recently, Ryan was checking messages on his iPhone and saw a picture of fellow deacon candidate Brian Dugan, a nurse, with a bottle of the hand sanitizer on his desk at the Deere & Co. plant where he is working. The message beneath the photo read: “Thanks for helping out your buddies.”
(Visit the Mississippi River Distilling Company website at www.mrdistilling.com)