The typically small-batch operation is producing and shipping massive quantities — as much as 10,000 gallons a week — of hand sanitizer.
On March 16, when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered all Michigan bars and restaurants to close temporarily, Traverse City Whiskey Co. was the largest whiskey company in the state by output and sales, according to co-founder Jared Rapp, and one of the largest craft distilleries in the country.
“You can’t believe what’s happened,” Rapp said. “We are taking e-commerce orders in a way that we never thought was possible.”
But TC Whiskey isn’t shipping any whiskey, brandy or cocktail cherries. The Traverse City-based distillery hasn’t even made a bottle of booze in five weeks.
Instead, the typically small-batch operation is producing and shipping massive quantities — as much as 10,000 gallons a week — of hand sanitizer.
Rapp, who grew up in Bloomfield Township and had his bar mitzvah at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, founded TC Whiskey with Moti Goldring and Chris Fredrickson in 2011. Their products, many of which are kosher, are now sold in bars and retailers across the country. In Michigan alone, Traverse City Whiskey has around 4,000 retail partners.
In 2019, the company opened a Ferndale location on Woodward Avenue — its first outside of Traverse City — called The Outpost. Rapp was headed there when he heard about the governor’s executive order. By 3 p.m. that day, the Outpost’s general manager Jeri Seeley had locked the door.
“It was surreal,” Rapp recalled.
For a week, Rapp and his team desperately sought clarity. With bars and restaurants closed indefinitely, about a third of their income had suddenly vanished. And social distancing rendered TC’s tasting rooms, tours and events inactive. “We were just totally freaked out,” Rapp said.
Customers called to ask about previously scheduled events, and TC didn’t know what to tell them. Meanwhile, the dedicated staff of about 50 was left wondering whether they’d have paychecks coming.
Leadership ensured employees they wouldn’t lose their jobs. Having heard about hand sanitizer shortages, the company figured it could use its on-hand “tails” (the alcoholic leftovers from distillation, “only good for things like vodka and sanitizer,” said Rapp) to help out and keep employees on payroll.
On March 21, TC posted a Facebook message: “TC Whiskey Hand Sanitizer is now available.” It included a link to make a purchase, which triggered an email to Fredrickson’s inbox, indicating the buyer’s name and address.
By the following morning, so many orders had come in that his email software crashed. The team was stunned.
“That moment was when we knew there was something going on that was way bigger than what we had thought,” Rapp said.
They went to work by hiring a fulfillment manager and tapping their network. Within two days, they had truckloads arriving of hydrogen peroxide, glycerol and packaging materials.
It’s been an all-hands-on-deck effort.
“When we realized what kind of need was there,” Rapp said, “we shared it with our staff and everybody stepped up and said, ‘I’ll give it every hour I can to try to get this done.’”
Jeri Seeley, general manager at The Outpost, said she is busier than she has ever been, fielding daily frenzies of emails and calls. Rapp says Phil Smith, a bottling line manager, is driving a van all day long, delivering hand sanitizer to places that need it.
In addition to selling sanitizer, TC has also donated more than 5,000 gallons, Rapp said, to “pretty much every police department, fire department and nursing facility Up North,” plus dozens of organizations in the Detroit area, including numerous senior care homes.
Trinity Health, a health system operating in over 20 states, received 132 cases from TC on April 17 and then another shipment on April 21.
“For Traverse City Whiskey to turn around a little over 21,000 bottles of hand sanitizer in such a short amount of time is pretty remarkable, and the timing could not have been better,” said Trinity Health supply chain director Jennifer Chenard. “‘Thank you’ really is not enough.”
TC has also offered some of its supply of key ingredients at cost to other distillers in the state.
The company has limited order quantities, so that it can provide hand sanitizer to as many people and places as possible.
Rapp gushes with pride over his team’s hustle and ingenuity. They’ve repurposed caps from ketchup, mustard and windshield washer bottles — “you name it” — for the sanitizer.
On Wednesday, April 22, Whitmer gave another address: “Dozens of businesses have stepped up,” she rhapsodized, before giving shoutouts to several companies, including TC Whiskey.
“With our size and scale,” Rapp reflected, “that brings with it great responsibility to our fellow citizens. We really had no choice but to answer that calling.”
Hand sanitizer orders can be placed at tcwhiskeyshop.com.