COVID Courageous Business of the Year

Black Band Distillery

Helping the community navigate the pandemic through decisive and selfless action

by Jonathan Wright
Black Band Distillery
Photo by Evan Temchin

In mid-March of 2020, Illinois had experienced just eight deaths as a result of COVID-19. While that number would later skyrocket, another problem quickly became clear: a nationwide shortage of hand sanitizer. Along with the run on toilet paper and cleaning supplies, the market was simply not prepared for the exponential growth in consumer demand. 

Meanwhile, Black Band Distillery had not yet opened its doors in Peoria’s Warehouse District. Owner Chris Ober had been gearing up for this moment for over a decade, ever since he became immersed in the city’s rich distilling heritage. Once known as the “Whiskey Capital of the World,” Peoria was deprived of this industry by Prohibition, losing much of its identity in the process. Having accumulated a wealth of knowledge about distillation and fermentation, Ober was determined to reclaim for his hometown what had been lost a century earlier. 

Construction began on Black Band’s historic building in 2018, and a grand opening was set for the spring of 2020. Then COVID-19 shut the world down. Realizing that he could help ease the shortage in the Peoria area, Ober and his team repurposed their brand-new distilling equipment to manufacture hand sanitizer. By March 23, they were ready with their first shipment for distribution to the medical community, local businesses and workers on the frontlines.

As demand remained strong, their efforts soon grew beyond Ober’s initial batch of 1,000 gallons. They ultimately produced 20,000 gallons of sanitizer—and did it all without a profit motive. Black Band did not even qualify for the federal Paycheck Protection Program, making Ober’s commitment that much more meaningful.

After postponing their grand opening by nearly a year, Black Band Distillery finally opened to the public for its original purpose: to produce unique and delicious spirits from locally grown organic grains and provide an exceptional dining experience. But it also stands as a testament to Chris Ober’s vision, hard work and dedication to the health and well-being of his community in the midst of unprecedented economic challenges. PM