Patrick Kingsley, an international correspondent, and Laetitia Vancon, a photojournalist, are driving more than 3,700 miles to explore the reopening of the European continent after coronavirus lockdowns. Read all their dispatches.
WICHELEN, Belgium — You can smell the gin distillery before you see it — the whiff of alcohol floats down the street outside. And if you head inside on the right morning, you’ll find a mustachioed chemist infusing that alcohol with juniper berries, coriander seeds and aniseed.
But last Thursday the chemist, Michael Levantaci, was mixing something very different. He’d put the herbs and fruit to one side, and was instead standing on a stepladder, pouring glycerin and ether into a silver vat. The former makes the alcohol kinder to the touch, the latter makes it undrinkable.
The Rubbens Distillery has made gin since 1817, when Belgium was still part of the Netherlands. Since the coronavirus crisis started, prompting a Europe-wide shortage of disinfectant, it has also bottled approximately 37,000 gallons of hand sanitizer.
“I prefer the gin part,” said Mr. Levantaci, who invented most of the distillery’s 19 gin and liqueur recipes.
Henrik Beck, whose family of farmers owns and runs the firm, said that at the moment, “It’s not about making a fancy product.”
“We just wanted to help,” he said.
Across Europe, the crisis forced thousands of companies to improvise — either to stay afloat, or to cater to a new pandemic-related niche.
In France, perfumeries made disinfectant. In Denmark, a gourmet restaurant now sells only burgers. Elsewhere in this Belgian town, a lingerie manufacturer pivoted from corsets to Covid, and now produces face masks.
But the Rubbens Distillery was one of the first to turn a coronavirus sideline into a major part of the business.
Many firms switched back to their original focuses by the time restrictions started to ease. By contrast, even as Belgian society has begun to reopen, the distillery is producing roughly twice as many gallons of hand sanitizer every week than gin.
What began as an experiment is now, post-lockdown, an important product for the firm.
Every second week, Mr. Levantaci still prepares some of the distillery’s usual gins and liqueurs — pouring herbs and berries into an antique copper distillation machine built in 1930.
But every other week, he oversees the production of around 8,000 containers of hand sanitizer.
To bottle it, the company has repurposed most of the machines used for the gin.
It’s a Rube Goldberg-style setup: The bottles wobble through the factory on a shiny silver conveyor belt while they’re affixed with labels. Then they’re scooped up by a spinning cylinder and filled with sanitizer through a series of nozzles. Finally, workers screw on their caps by hand.
To avoid contaminating the gin, the firm keeps the sanitizer away from the pipes that carry the gin around the brick-walled factory.
But to package the sanitizer, the team has repurposed thousands of containers usually used to stock a creamy liqueur.
And to cope with demand, the company has reassigned waiters and chefs from the distillery’s now-shuttered brasserie to help seal and package the bottles.
The genesis of the factory’s new approach came days after Belgium entered lockdown in March. The firm’s side-business, the restaurant, had been ordered to close to stop the spread of the virus. Its gin-tasting events had been canceled. Revenues had plummeted.
Then Mr. Beck heard about shortages of disinfectant in Belgian hospitals and shops, and read about a distillery making hand gel in Britain.
The British company had been able to create a new sanitizer within days simply by harnessing most of the same machines and raw materials it used to make gin.
“And I thought,” Mr. Beck remembered, “That doesn’t sound too difficult!”
He and Mr. Levantaci consulted with local pharmacists, analyzed a guide to making sanitizer produced by the World Health Organization, and received the relevant permissions from the central government in Brussels — all in the space of a weekend.
They discovered they couldn’t make a disinfectant gel. The ingredients were too hard to source at the time. But they could make a liquid sanitizer by adding two easily-available chemicals — ether and glycerin — to their existing stocks of raw ethanol.
The permissions arrived on Sunday March 22; the first orders — from a hospital in Bruges — on the Monday; and the first deliveries on the Tuesday.
After that, they didn’t even have to advertise their new service. Demand was so high that word spread organically. Soon, Mr. Beck reckons, roughly 20 hospitals and 300 pharmacies had cold-called him not only from Belgium, but across Europe.
Officials in Lombardy, one of the areas of Italy most affected by the crisis, even contacted Mr. Beck in desperation, he said, before he pointed them toward options closer to home.
When their delivery truck arrived at another hospital in eastern Belgium, “the driver said there was almost a party when he drove up,” Mr. Beck recalled.
“They were a lifesaver,” said Jan Cerpentier, a pharmacy manager working 70 miles away on the French border. Mr. Cerpentier’s stocks had been empty for 10 days before he found out about Rubbens’s new line, he said. “There was no one else who could deliver.”
The product’s success also gave rise to an odd ritual. In order to reduce tax on sales of the disinfectant, the distillery needed to prove to the government that it couldn’t secretly be drunk for pleasure.
That means Mr. Levantaci is joined several times a month by a government official, who watches him ceremonially pour ether into a vat of ethanol, demonstrating it isn’t some kind of illicit moonshine.
But the success has also posed a small quandary for Mr. Beck. He needs the revenue from sanitizer sales to offset the closure of the restaurant and a couple of shops he runs elsewhere in Belgium. Equally, he doesn’t want to be construed as a profiteer.
So he sells at what he feels is a “democratic price” — roughly three dollars per pint. Moreover, that allows him to re-employ some of the restaurant staff he was forced to lay off in March.
“Physically, it’s hard work,” said Nathalie Goosens, the restaurant’s former sous-chef, who now helps bottle the liquid. “But I’m happy to have work at this time,” she added.
It isn’t quite what Mr. Levantaci dreamed of doing when he started this job. “As a distiller,” he said, gin-making “feels like more of a craft.”
It’s also not clear whether the factory will be able to cope with preparing both gin and hand sanitizer once demand for gin increases in the run-up to Christmas.
But for the time being, Mr. Beck is proud and glad to help in an emergency — and happy to raise the company’s profile among local businesses and institutions.
An administrator at a nearby school recently called to order more sanitizer.
“Oh,” Mr. Beck remembered the administrator saying with surprise, “So you’re also a distillery?”