BEEVILLE – When Kenneth Bethune opened the doors of Coastal Bend Distilling Co., he envisioned his whiskey, vodka and gin in stores and gracing the shelves behind bars across the state and nation.
He never pictured himself filling plastic bottles, affixing labels to said bottles and working the counter as a salesman of his own brand of hand sanitizer.
“It’s not the business I thought I’d ever be in, but it’s been interesting, for sure,” Bethune said during an interview at the tasting room in the front of his distillery building in downtown Beeville.
Well, at least it used to be the tasting room.
Now it’s serving as the storefront for the distillery’s newest product.
Bethune, who co-owns the distillery with his wife, Eveline, said he made the call to shift the company’s focus from making alcohol to hand sanitizer last month after he was brought the idea from Craig Olson, his new interim operations manager.
Olson, who has been with the company for less than a month, researched the idea and found the World Health Organization’s recipe that the United States Food and Drug Administration approved for use under an exemption offered to companies who had the capability of producing alcohol-based sanitizer products.
That recipe produces a sanitizer that has an 80 percent alcohol content, which is far above the standard sanitizer products found in stores that usually contain between 60 and 70 percent alcohol.
“It has more alcohol. It does a better job of killing (germs),” Olson said.
Olson has overseen the conversion from a distillery to a hand-sanitizer producer.
“We take the forklift, dump the high-proof alcohol into a barrel until we reach the certain number of pounds we need, then I take a beaker and measure out all the hydrogen peroxide, the glycerin and the water that goes into the recipe,” he said during an interview after helping fill and label a case of 16-ounce bottles.
“Each batch I do is 200 liters, which is about 52 gallons. Each batch is made and mixed by hand, then we typically take the barrel and move it over and scoop it and hand fill each bottle.”
The process of making the hand sanitizer, for the most part, has been smooth for the crew at the distillery.
That doesn’t mean there haven’t been some hiccups, though.
“We had the ethanol on hand. That’s what we use to make the vodka, the gin, all the other things,” Olson said. “The hard part, at first, was getting the glycerin and hydrogen peroxide.
“All the local supplies had been used up.”
Bethune’s answer to that problem?
Send your family all over San Antonio buying up hydrogen peroxide, and scour the internet for sellers.
He sent his uncle Robert Nollen Sr. on a buying excursion throughout the Alamo City to come up with about 30 gallons of hydrogen peroxide.
Then there was a deep dive to every corner of the world wide web, which included purchases from a veterinary health website and an indoor gardening website, just to name a couple.
That still didn’t yield enough of the product that some people know only as “that stuff in the brown bottle that you dump on your cuts and it bubbles up.”
“There were a couple of times where we ran out of hydrogen peroxide and we had to just wait because this is the approved recipe that gets us the exemption,” said Olson.
“At least once, maybe twice, we had to pause production.
“One time, we had to borrow some from a friend. I was one jug of hydrogen peroxide short on a recipe and ... a friend brought a jug up and we were able to ramp up and make another batch.”
Then there was the problem of finding containers.
“Another supply shortage we had in the beginning were bottles,” Olson said. “We were looking anywhere and everywhere we could look to get bottles to put the product in. We were having a very hard time sourcing it.”
Olson’s answer to that problem?
Head to Walmart and Walgreen’s and swipe the shelf clean of all available small bottles, Supermarket Sweep-style, of course.
Taking it to market
Bethune first took his product to market in the form of donations.
“We’ve made some donations to non-profits; to all the police departments and all of the volunteer fire departments, we’ve made donations to them,” he said.
Coastal Bend Distilling hand sanitizer went on sale to the general public for the first time on March 30.
“It was pretty busy,” Olson said. “I would say the second day was more busy than the first. As the social media message got out more, people started telling their friends about it and word of mouth spread.
“I would say Day 2 was busier than Day 1.
“There was somebody in here buying nearly the whole day the first two days.”
Now, the company is offering the sanitizer in 8-ounce, 16-ounce and 32-ounce sizes for walk-up customers.
They’re also offering larger sizes for corporate customers as well.
“The biggest one we’ve sold so far,” Olson said, “has been a 26-gallon batch that we sent to the state hospital in Corpus Christi.”
The sanitizer is available for purchase at the distillery at 201 N. Madison St. in downtown Beeville from noon to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday.
A needed product
The demand for the product has been high, particularly from organizations who are looking to buy large quantities.
That didn’t surprise Olson, who previously handled emergency management services in the Texas A&M Forest Service.
“I anticipated a lot of the state agencies ... that need this to operate and have their proper PPE (personal protective equipment) would be interested in purchasing it,” he said.
“This is a necessary product right now and you can’t buy it in stores.
“We’re one of the only places south of San Antonio doing this. We may be the last place still doing it.
“So, if you want it, you have to start reaching out to these non-traditional sources like small distilleries.”
Bethune, on the other hand, has been surprised by the volume of sales, saying that his worry in the beginning was whether anyone would even want to buy a product like hand sanitizer from a company known for making liquor.
Dollars and cents
The shift to making hand sanitizer, Bethune said, was a community service, but it also had to make economic sense for a business that opened its door just over a year ago.
To do that, he priced the product at $1.25 per ounce.
“I certainly didn’t want anyone to accuse me of price gouging. But, all this stuff is very expensive,” Bethune said. “You were back there, you saw it: it’s hand filled, hand measured, hand mixed by my employees who cost the same as they did before we started this.
“The price is a real representation of trying to make enough money to keep the doors open ... but also a lot of it is just paying for the materials.”
For now, Bethune said, Coastal Bend Distilling is able to make it work because they are in a unique enough position to do it.
“If we were a little bigger or little smaller, this might not make sense to us,” he said.
“If I was here by myself, there’s no way we could run this operation.
“... Or, if I had a team of 100 people and all we did was make vodka, it wouldn’t make sense to stop doing that.
“If I was in distribution all over the world, it wouldn’t make sense to stop doing that to make hand sanitizer.
“We are kind of in a sweet spot where it works out.”
Just for now
The distillery, Olson says, will continue making the hand sanitizer for as long as it is needed.
“As long as the exemption is there and as long as the traditional sources continue to be bought up in bulk by the larger institutions, I think this will just continue,” he said. “We’ll see how long our supply holds out.”
The product is not a part of the long-term plans, though, he added.
A distribution deal for the company’s line of liquor - Lucky Star Gin, Live Oak Vodka, Col. Fannin’s Whiskey - is the long-term plan, as it always has been.
And that deal - with local distributor L&F Distributors - was completed last week when Bethune signed the official documentation.
“Hopefully, once this is over, you’ll start seeing Coastal Bend Distilling liquors on liquor store shelves and at local bars,” Olson said. “We’re ready to be distributing, but everyone is just waiting for all this craziness to pass.”
Kevin J. Keller is the sports editor at the Bee-Picayune and the Advance-Guard and can be reached at 343-5223, or at sports@MySouTex.com, or follow him on Twitter, @beegoliadsports.