If you had told Camden Ford last year that his Florida-area distillery would be churning out hand sanitizer, he would probably look at you like you had one too many shots of his whiskey. But if you talked to him about it now, he'd tell you it saved his business. Because it did.
Recently I got the chance to talk to Ford, owner/operator of Timber Creek, about his experiences running a distillery amid this unprecedented time in history. And this is his story.
Tell us a little bit more about Timber Creek and give us a brief rundown of your portfolio.
We're in a different part of Florida that most people aren't really familiar with. We're out here in the panhandle, about an hour away from Pensacola, Florida and just south of Alabama. Our distillery is located back in the woods on 212 acres of land. My partner, Aaron Barnes and I, started it up about 10 years ago. We make rum, whiskey, gin and vodka, and we use all local grains, except for our barley, which doesn't grow down here in Florida.
Does Timber Creek distribute nationwide, or just to Florida?
Right now, just within Florida.
Take us back around the time when the Coronavirus was just starting to become a real threat. What were some of the first actions you took?
Backtrack about a year and a half ago, we had to move our distillery. We started building a new facility just down the road from our old one on a new piece of property. The good news is, it was being built from scratch. The bad news is, we were the ones who had to build it. So, we built a 13,000 sq ft. brand new building. Top to bottom, just me and my partner.
Wait, you literally built the facility with your own two hands?
Yep. Everything except the concrete slab, because we're not good with concrete.
That's incredibly impressive.
Yeah, we're tired. So, in the process of moving, we actually had to move about 3,500 gallons of molasses that we purchased, but was unable to distill at the other property. So, when we got our new plant up and running, the first thing we started doing was making rum. And we ended up with about 700 gallons of high proof rum sitting in a tank. We didn't really do anything with it. It was just sitting there. We were pushing really hard to get our tasting room open before Spring break, because Spring break is really big down here in the panhandle. We ended up getting it done by the first week of March, and guess what?
Coronavirus hits JUST as Spring break started ramping up. We were like, Crap! What do we do now? And my partner was like, Well, there's some distilleries making hand sanitizer, we could try that? So he read up on all the recipes and ordered some glycerin and hydrogen peroxide and we mixed up ten gallons and put it out to the local papers. We even offered to donate it to first responders and those who couldn't afford any for themselves. By Saturday, we were slammed. Wall-to-wall people lined up. We sold out immediately. We made 17 more gallons of hand sanitizer for the following Sunday, and we sold out of that too. We weren't even planning on working the next day because we had been working around the clock. But, come Monday, my phone was ringing off the hook. So we went right back to making it. We made hand sanitizer for a month straight. We ended up with about 700 gallons of 140 proof rum and we sold every drop. Then we had about 400 gallons of vodka in the tank and we sold every drop of that! We were out! But people were STILL looking for hand sanitizer.
After about 7 or 8 weeks the hype kind of dissipated and the initial shock of the situation was over. People weren't panicking as much.
Besides making hand sanitizer, was there anything else you did? Were you able to focus at all on your core lineup of products?
We were selling our lineup at the same time! Anytime someone came up to see us for hand sanitizer, we told them about our products and gave them samples. We sold a lot of our product along with hand sanitizer.
Would you say this was a success story?
Yeah, it was one of those things where, hand sanitizer pretty much saved our business. Because without that, no one would have came by at the start of the pandemic. I mean, why would they? Everyone was all hunkered down at home.
Do you think you're going to keep making hand sanitizer?
Yes and no. The demand for it has really dropped to almost nothing locally. We still fulfill some orders, but now you can actually find hand sanitizer on the shelf in stores.
What were some of the marketing tactics you used during this time? Aside from word of mouth, which, it seems like a lot of people were spreading the word about Timber Creek Distillery, what else did you do? Did you contact newspapers? Did you use social media?
The big thing we did was offer it for free. We offered 8 ounces for free to anybody that came by. And if you wanted more, you had to pay for it. And everyone wanted more. Since we were offering it for free, we got covered by the local newspaper, which led to us being on the local new station. So we were slammed!
If you had to go back to the very beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, is there anything that you would do differently to your business and operations knowing what you know now? I think you did the best thing you probably could have done.
Yeah, the timing was right. We got in about two to three weeks before any other distilleries in the area got in. So we sucked up all the oxygen on the topic.
Where do you see your industry in 10 years?
Right now, craft distilleries are where craft breweries were 20 years ago. And over time, people are going to learn to distill spirits better and better. With the coronavirus, there will be a lot of distilleries and breweries that will inevitably go out of business. But the ones that make it through are going to come out a lot stronger.
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