Huntley-based Below Zero frozen alcohol maker expanding with new machine

Choices between having an adult beverage or a cold, frozen dessert after a meal have gotten easier for customers of Epic Deli in McHenry.

Now, they can have both in one single sugar cone.

Soft-serve booze, without any dairy, is being served out of a machine right behind the eatery's counter, and the contraption is made by Huntley-based Below Zero, a company whose secret gel makes alcohol, normally difficult to freeze, cold enough to turn into a substance similar to a chocolate-vanilla twist from Dairy Queen.

It transforms any beer, wine and even hard liquors like whiskey and vodka into treats you lick rather than drink, and the final product retains the exact same alcohol content of the elements that were used to make it, according to the company.

A piƱa colada smoothie seltzer called Smooj, by Troobado Brewing in Michigan, was available from Epic Monday, and for the coming weekend, restaurant owner Tyler Wildey said an alcohol-infused Dole Whip, a favorite of Disney theme park patrons, is going to be on tap.

"Right now, the one we have in there, the starting cocktail itself is so good that it's one of the tastiest ice creams I've ever had in my life. Not like your mom's White Claw seltzers, it's loaded with fresh fruit, pineapple. This weekend, we got the real Dole Whip mix, and we're going to add a bunch of overproof Jamaican rum to it," Wildey said.

The machine, which costs $5,500, and the gel that makes it possible were born in the months before the COVID-19 pandemic.

But their creator, Below Zero founder Will Rogers, has been making alcohol-filled soft serve cones for more than 10 years.

Previously, his business was focused on using a tank of nitrogen to activate the gel that allows alcohol to freeze in concert with the other components of a beer, wine or mixed drink. The company's revenue was generated by selling cones at gatherings, such as concerts, weddings and corporate events.

Now, his gels are more concentrated and can work to freeze the alcohol without the nitrogen tank.

"About five years ago, I knew the only way to get this to market was we had to lose the nitrogen aspect," Rogers said.

Now, though, the local business wants to move into selling the machines and gels to breweries and restaurants and perhaps hotel chains, casinos, cruise lines and other tourist-oriented businesses.

"COVID actually did a great thing for us. It really made us restructure our marketing, our customer base. When I developed this machine, I immediately thought of the bar and restaurant industry. The ones who took this and ran are microbreweries. These guys are true chefs of beer," Rogers said.

Machines already are in more than a dozen states, and breweries have been the fastest adapters, said Dawn Tomczyk, the sales manager for Below Zero.

As the economy has reopened from the hibernation induced by COVID-19, interest in Below Zero machines has skyrocketed, she said.

"For restaurants, it's really kind of an added attraction. It's helping them get customers come back in," Tomczyk said.

Rogers said he hopes to expand into the home consumer market, with gels that can work to freeze alcohol thrown into soft serve makers by brands such as Cuisinart that can be purchased from big-box retailers.

"We're sending machines all over. We're in 18 different states without even doing demos for them. Buyers are just watching YouTube videos and understand the concept. It's that simple," Tomczyk said.

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