In 1918, when the most devastating pandemic in contemporary history killed approximately 50 million people worldwide, Fellin stayed alive with a little help from her spirits.
Fellin, who lived into her early 80s, worked at hospitals in Allentown, which was believed to have suffered more than 500 deaths caused by the 1918 flu pandemic. She often regaled her grandchildren with stories of how she would soak her gauze mask in homemade whiskey before stepping in to save lives.
“She had no fear,” Dombrosky said of his maternal grandmother. “It took care of it.”
With this bit of anecdotal history on their minds, the ownership group of Christmas City Spirits in Bethlehem, Pa., and Dombrosky, its head distiller, pledged to step up during the novel coronavirus pandemic and do their part.
In early March, St. Luke’s University Health Network faced a shortage of hand sanitizer. Christmas City Spirits responded in a matter of days by turning its first batch of rum, which was intended to be sold, into a 160-proof cleaning solution. The distillery produced 27 gallons, giving it all to the hospital.
Over the next three months, the boutique distillery suspended production of all drinkable alcohol and produced approximately 800 gallons of hand sanitizer for organizations, charities and workers risking their lives to combat the virus.
According to the Distilled Spirits Council, 831 distilleries across the nation have made hand sanitizer for local communities. Only one distillery, however, has the distinction of producing it strictly for donation. Not a single one of the 4,000 four-ounce bottles of Christmas City Spirits’ hand sanitizer, aptly named “Corona Bullet,” was sold for profit.
“We just felt like we were doing the right thing at the right time,” said Brett Biggs, one of the distillery’s four co-owners.
Members of the ownership group all have day jobs. Biggs, for example, works as a financial adviser, while one of his partners is a lawyer and another a real estate agent. And even though Dombrosky pays the bills as a project manager, distilling is his family’s heirloom — a skill passed down through the generations since Fellin’s mother made opium-infused hooch in the 1890s.
Dombrosky, who goes by “Woody” because people say he is as friendly as the “Cheers” character, is the spirit-maker responsible for the company’s vodka made from local oats and wheat, in addition to its 17th-century English cordial that borrows from the recipe Martha Washington used to make President George Washington’s preferred cherry bounce. Christmas City Spirits, which started sales in mid-2019, planned to add rum to its lineup this spring and was a week away from bottling the molasses-based drink when the company leaders gathered for a meeting.
It was around the same time when frantic shoppers were scooping up every roll of toilet paper in stock and elected leaders were shutting down businesses. The coronavirus went from something that felt far away to a very real problem in Bethlehem.
“Oh, wow, this is serious,” Biggs, who also co-owns two restaurants, remembers thinking. “That was a ‘holy s---’ moment, to be honest.”
At the ownership meeting, Dombrosky brought up his grandmother’s guidebook to surviving a pandemic, just as a lighthearted urban legend. But Grandma was on to something.
Today, Fellin would be considered an essential front-line worker. Back then, she was just a nurse trying to survive with her own holistic approach and moonshine know-how. By drenching her mask in rye whiskey, Fellin would later tell her grandchildren, she was able to filter out bacteria. The Christmas City Spirits owners found the story charming, but they had also heard of other distilleries turning alcohol into bacteria-fighting hand sanitizer.
“A lot of the ones that did were bigger distilleries that could produce a heck of a lot more than we can,” Biggs said. “We’re at this meeting talking about it, and I said, ‘Do we want to do our part here?’"
The response was unanimous.
“'We got to start helping people out,'” Dombrosky recalled thinking. “'It’s going to get nuts.'”
Within two days, Biggs researched World Health Organization guidelines for making hand sanitizer and Dombrosky ran the fermenting rum through the still several more times to increase the alcohol level. The first batch was delivered in five-gallon buckets to a representative of St. Luke’s in the parking lot of a local home improvement store.
“Very moonshinery,” Biggs joked.
The company, which had sold out of all alcohol products, posted on social media about its donation and the story went viral. Hand sanitizer was in high demand and short supply, so Christmas City Spirits was inundated with requests from the public. Rather than capitalizing on the moment, the group announced it would continue manufacturing hand sanitizer, just not for sale. The company leaders created a list of organizations, spanning from Meals on Wheels volunteers to the first responders of Northampton County Emergency Management Services, and each week donated bottles of their Corona Bullet.
“It wasn’t about money,” Dombrosky said. “[It] never was. It was about helping people.”
The community chipped in. A local brewery donated 600 gallons of beer for Christmas City Spirits to distill. Residents donated money and brought Corona Bullet T-shirts to offset expenses.
“It was a pretty incredible outreach,” Biggs said.
After months of distilling beer into high-proof cleaning solutions and bottling it all by hand — a tedious process mostly executed by Dombrosky’s wife and 15-year-old son — Christmas City Spirits has donated its last batch to downtown Bethlehem business owners. Last week, the company shifted back to making the drinkable stuff.
Dombrosky will return to the family business of distilling after spending the past several months taking cues from his pandemic-fighting grandmother.
“I love doing what I do, and to be honest with you it brings a tear to my eye,” Dombrosky said. “I like to help people.”
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