Made in Georgia: Pandemic leads to Old Fourth Distillery’s new product

Last fall, brothers Jeff and Craig Moore of Atlanta's Old Fourth Distillery no more would have dreamed they would be making thousands of gallons of hand sanitizer daily than they would have dreamed of opening a dog grooming salon.

COVID-19 has brought its share of challenges and, in many cases, heartbreak, but it also has brought a few unlikely business opportunities.

“At the beginning of March, we saw people searching for toilet paper and face masks and gloves, and the supplies were drying up,” Jeff Moore said. “Hand sanitizer was one of those things. We looked at the 190-proof alcohol we had sitting here and decided to find out what it would take to turn that alcohol into hand sanitizer. We looked to the World Health Organization for a set-in-stone formula. If you follow it, you’ve got 100 percent effective hand sanitizer on the other end.”

Old Fourth, the first distillery to open in Atlanta since Prohibition, launched its first product, vodka, in December, 2014, then gin in January, 2015. That same year, the brothers laid down their first barrels of bourbon, and they created Lawn Dart, a vodka flavored with fresh lemon and ginger, in 2017. Their distillery on Edgewood Avenue, near downtown Atlanta, was opened for tours and tastings, as well as comedy nights, cocktail parties, receptions and corporate functions.

But, with restaurants closed and people staying in, the market for the distillery’s products was dwindling.

The brothers started their foray into hand sanitizer by ordering 100 gallons of aloe vera gel. “We made about 50 gallons of sanitizer and it disappeared in a matter of hours,” Moore said. “As soon as people realized we were making this, we were bombarded with requests from first responders, the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, and corporations with field service operations that cannot shut down, all needing our product, and needing it in large quantities.”

When GEMA asked for 10,000 gallons, the brothers rethought the manufacturing process, in order to produce sanitizer on a much larger scale. They moved to using glycerin, instead of aloe vera gel, and partnered with a pharmaceutical chemical company for the blending. “We’re not medical people, but when you’re distilling, you’re working with food-grade products,” Moore said. “There was nothing really new here, but the scale was quite incredible.”

And, now, they’re putting out 5,000 gallons a day. They put it into 8-ounce bottles, and 1-gallon and 5-gallon jugs, in order to provide the sanitizer in packaging that works for their clients. “If you’re an emergency workforce, and you’re setting up a makeshift hospital somewhere, you need these 5-gallon buckets with pumps on them,” he said. “You can use those to fill 8-ounce containers that staff can have on them at all times.”

Figuring out the packaging was just part of the learning curve it took to provide hand sanitizer in this volume. Moore said it was mid-April before they felt they were on top of everything.

At first, they were using their own alcohol, but realized they never would be able to keep up with the volume needed for sanitizer and still have enough for their distillery business. “It would have taken us months to retool and restart production of our primary business,” Moore said. “So, we put production time aside to make sure we can keep up with our distilled spirits sales. And, we receive tanker trucks full of distilled denatured alcohol from Iowa to keep up with the sanitizer business.”

The demand is so great that each 5,000-gallon batch is gone the next day.

But, success in the hand sanitizer business does not mean that it’s something the distillery wants to do forever. “We are not going to be in the hand sanitizer business when all this over,” Moore said. “Once things go back to normal, there’s no way to compete with Purell at $1.99 a container.”

The brothers are looking forward to having time to concentrate on their sherry-finished and cognac-finished bourbons. And, like their hand sanitizer, which is only available in the Atlanta area, their specialty bourbons also have limited distribution. “You can’t buy our bourbon anywhere in the world but the state of Georgia,” Moore said. “We’re homegrown guys, and have done a pretty good job of not getting ahead of ourselves.”

That’s as true of taking advantage of new business opportunities as it is of taking care of their core business.