MILWAUKEE - Wisconsin distillers filled in when the state desperately needed hand sanitizer early on in the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the end of a dizzying 2020, those businesses got a surprise: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was going to slap distilleries with a $14,000 fee.
There were no New Year's toasts inside the Twisted Path Distillery tasting room.
Since March, no customers have been inside sipping made-in-Milwaukee vodka, rum or gin. But that's also when other calls started pouring in.
Hand sanitizer made by Twisted Path Distillery
"Fire departments, police departments, homeless shelters -- calling us, asking: Do you have any hand sanitizer? We need it," said Brian Sammons with Twisted Path.
Sammons, a former CIA agent turned Bay View distiller, registered with the FDA and began making, donating and selling hand sanitizer in hopes of breaking even.
"We considered ourselves fortunate, and we weren’t looking at it from a profit motive, we were looking at it from a saving lives motive," Sammons said.
Hand sanitizer made by Central Standard Craft Distillery
Twisted Path wasn't alone.
More than 800 distilleries across the U.S. -- including 15 in Wisconsin -- made hand sanitizer during the pandemic.
On Tuesday, Dec. 29, the FDA announced a new and retroactive $14,060 fee. The administration said Thursday that the newly-announced user fees were intended to help the FDA do its regulatory work.
For distillers, that stung.
"We’re a really small business, and to be hit by something like that, it’s devastating. And this is on top of how COVID has treated a lot of businesses," said Sammons. "This COVID year has been a really bad year for a lot of us in this industry."
Twisted Path Distillery
After the buzz, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on Thursday, Dec. 31 told the FDA to stop. HHS Chief of Staff Brian Harrison wrote in a statement:
"Small businesses who stepped up to fight COVID-19 should be applauded by their government, not taxed for doing so.
"I’m pleased to announce we have directed FDA to cease enforcement of these arbitrary, surprise user fees. Happy New Year, distilleries, and cheers to you for helping keep us safe!"
At Twisted Path, they are back to making drinks with a twist for takeout.
"Obviously, 2020 was a pretty 'twisted path' for everybody," Sammons said.
Cheers to Sammons, who started the 2021 path by welcoming a baby born on New Year's Day.