Awaiting license, new owners of Reno’s Forsaken River distillery helping with hand sanitizer shortage
RENO, Nev. — It’s the last Friday in March, and David Hoopengardner and his business partners, Eric Roe and Paul Pruteanu, are inside Forsaken River Spirits, their recently purchased craft distillery at 255 Bell St. near downtown Reno.
The new owners are celebrating a milestone event by firing up their first pot of mash — a mix of grains steeped in heated water — for their initial distillation of alcohol.
Not for craft whiskey, not for vodka, not for gin.
Those will come later.
Right now, while the COVID-19 pandemic has the Silver State in a shutdown, Forsaken River is producing alcohol for hand sanitizer, joining the trend set by other distilleries in recent weeks across greater Reno-Sparks.
However, unlike those distilleries, which were in operation prior to the spread of the coronavirus, Forsaken River is creating alcohol without an active license.
The business is waiting for its license to be reissued by the state of Nevada, said Hoopengardner, due to the requirement that as new owners of a distillery, they must apply for a reissued license.
The purchase of Forsaken River — best known for its Rye Patch Whiskey and Highland Gin, among other spirits — closed on Feb. 1, Hoopengardner told the NNBW, adding that financial terms are not being disclosed.
When asked what prompted the trio to buy the business, Hoopengardner said Forsaken River’s previous owners, who founded the distillery in 2015, have other careers and “didn’t have enough time to put into it to make it profitable.”
‘We’re trying to help out’
Despite not yet having a reissued license, the state late last month gave Forsaken River’s new ownership the green light to assist with the shortage of disinfecting gel, considering the ongoing public health crisis.
“We’re trying to help out with this current situation,” Hoopengardner said. “Until we get our license, we’re trying to make the alcohol to help with the manufacturing of hand sanitizer.”
When it comes to preventing the spread of COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says, “If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.”
Indeed, the primary ingredient in hand sanitizer is alcohol, which can be combined with aloe vera gel to make the germ-killing product, according to the World Health Organization.
Hoopengardner said the owners had been talking with the Reno City Council and the state since early March about getting the early OK to distill alcohol after noticing the coronavirus crisis shrink the nation’s hand sanitizer supply due to panic buying and stockpiling.
All told, in the first week of March, sales of hand sanitizer shot up by 470% compared to the same week a year earlier, according to a CNBC report, citing market research firm Nielsen.
“I told them (city and state), ‘Look, we want to try and help out, is there anything we can do?’” Hoopengardner told the NNBW. “That’s been our main focus the last couple of weeks. Just so we can get a little bit more experience, but also really help the community out.
“The state’s been great helping us work through our paperwork. They said, if you want to start distilling to help out with the shortage, they would allow that. So, as soon as we got the OK, we jumped right on it.”
Business opportunities on the horizon
Forsaken River’s alcohol license is on the agenda for the Reno City Council meeting on April 8 and, if OK’d, will be sent off to the state for final approval, Hoopengardner said.
If all goes to plan, he expects the license to be officially reissued by late April.
“We’re really excited about it,” he said about the company’s long-term goals of making spirits. “Northern Nevada is really conducive to this type of smaller craft industry stuff, between the distilleries and breweries. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun crafting and experimenting with stuff.
“Hopefully, once we get through this and there isn’t such a high demand for hand sanitizer, we’ll get back into learning and creating new spirits.”
In the meantime, now that the owners are allowed to distill faster than they originally anticipated, Hoopengardner said they’re looking to partner with another distillery or company that is already making and bottling hand sanitizer “to help them boost their production.”
“By the time we figure out how to get all the resources to make the hand sanitizer, label it and distribute it,” he said, “it would be a lot longer than if we partnered up with someone who is already doing that and help them.”
As of this story’s writing, Hoopengardner and Roe, of Incline Village, and Pruteanu, of Carson City, were still in the process of finding partners.
“We planned for a lot of scenarios,” Hoopengardner said with a laugh when asked about being able to distill sooner than expected. “This isn’t one of them. Like everybody else, it caught us by surprise. We weren’t anticipating a scenario where we got going a little more quickly to help out the community.
“But, if we can, we’ll do whatever we can to help.”
Heather Ashbridge, who started with Nevada State Development Corporation in 2008, previously served in several roles with the organization, including assistant vice president and loan officer. She is based in NSDC’s Reno office.