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As shelves that were once filled with hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies and disinfectant wipes sit empty across the state, an unlikely source has found a way to help meet those needs.
Several Vermont distilleries have slowed their production of spirits in order to distill high-proof alcohol to produce hand sanitizer for first responders, grocery store workers and everyday Vermonters in need.
Just in the last few days, the federal government gave the go ahead for distilleries to make the sanitizer, and the American Craft Spirits Association encouraged distillers to do it. Following those rule changes, many distillers across the country saw an opportunity to help out, including a few in Vermont.
On Thursday afternoon, Mad River Distillers set up tables outside two businesses in Waitsfield for a few hours, dispensing the distillery’s hand sanitizer for free to people who showed up with their own containers.
In one location, they had about a quarter of a 50-liter metal jug left by mid-afternoon. Across the street, they poured the clear liquid from label-less clear bottles, which usually contain their artisanal whiskey and rum, into jam jars locals brought from home.
The Warren distillery started making its own hand sanitizer about a week ago, sharing it with reps they work with and bartenders informally, owner John Egan said Thursday. They gave early batches, scented with essential oil, to local post office workers.
Mimi Buttenheim, president of the distillery, said the hand sanitizer has caused a “slight reduction” in its alcohol production, but said operations haven’t changed significantly. She said 80% of the full-time staff are still working.
“We know it’s a need, and we can produce it,” Buttenheim said. “It slows down our operations, but we can do it, so we’re gonna do it.”
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Mad River Distillers follows the World Health Organization’s recipe for hand sanitizer — more than 60% alcohol, glycerin and a bit of hydrogen peroxide.
Making the hand sanitizer is a different process for the distillery, which usually makes rum and whiskey.
“It’s very different,” Egan said. “You can’t drink this stuff.”
They’ve tweaked the still to get higher proof alcohol, necessary to meet the alcohol content needed in the hand sanitizer. Workers dropped off jam jars full of sanitizer topped with homemade labels at the Mad River Taste Place, one of the locations where the distillery set up to distribute.
Bruce Hyde, manager of the Mehuron’s Supermarket, the other location the distillery set up distribution, came outside to fill up a spray bottle.
The store hasn’t been able to get hand sanitizer in stock, he said. “It’s kind of a unicorn right now.”
Hyde planned to distribute the hand sanitizer to the store’s workers, who keep small bottles next to them at the checkout counters.
Hyde has no plans to close down the grocery store, but the workers there are exposed to a lot, he noted. For now, they use hand sanitizer, gloves and frequent handwashing. “The social distancing aspect of it is very, very difficult to achieve in a grocery store,” he said.
But, the day after Gov. Phil Scott designated grocery store employees as essential workers, Hyde said they need more support and equipment, like masks and gloves.
“We need guidance from the state on how we can protect ourselves,” he said.
The Vermont Office of Professional Regulation has also loosened its pharmacy rules to allow Vermont pharmacists to make hand sanitizer on site.
Compounding pharmacies are allowed to mix up their own sanitizer, but under the old rules for pharmacists, the state’s other pharmacies couldn’t.
Lauren Hibbert, the director of the Vermont Office of Professional Regulation, worked with the state Board of Pharmacy to relax the regulations so all pharmacists could make hand sanitizer. She said the office had received a lot of calls from pharmacies asking if it could be allowed.
“We wanted to make it clear we weren’t going to prosecute someone for compounding hand sanitizer even if they’re not a compounding pharmacy,” she said of the rules, which went into effect Wednesday.
Other distilleries have gone to the state directly to figure out how to help. Caledonia Spirits reached out to the state this week, asking if its services were needed, and got an immediate response. The state is currently reimbursing the distillery for the cost of their materials, while they produce 1,500 units of hand sanitizer for Vermont first responders.
The distillery made one batch of hand sanitizer last week that it delivered to the Vermont Food Bank. When workers dropped off the supplies, Caledonia Spirits’ vice president of marketing, Harrison Kahn, said the response they got was overwhelming.
“They were so grateful,” Kahn said. “This week, when we were making the decision of whether or not we would reopen the bar, we said, you know what? We need to just focus on making more hand sanitizer, so that’s what we’re doing now.”
He said Caledonia Spirits has 10 people helping to produce the hand sanitizer, while 62 other staff members are at home, though all are continuing to receive benefits and pay.
“It’s a really tough situation,” Kahn said. “I think most people think distilleries have more money than they do. We produce a really premium product, but in reality, we operate a bar.”
So far, according to Kahn, the biggest challenge with production has been finding glycerin. He said the other two ingredients in hand sanitizer, alcohol and hydrogen peroxide, the distillery has, as long as it keeps up a small alcohol operation. But he noted that the firm has reached out to health and beauty companies in the area to see if they have any glycerin they’re able to contribute.
Kahn said ideally Caledonia would be giving as much hand sanitizer away for free as possible, but said it opted to work with the state because managers know they need to conserve cash to keep making payroll while their staff is at home.
“Small distilleries like Barr Hill are wondering how we’re going to get through this crisis now that restaurants and bars have closed,” Kahn said. “And yet, we have a responsibility to provide hand sanitizer to the people who need it, so we’re going to keep producing as much as we can for as long as we can.”
Elizabeth Hewitt and Anne Wallace Allen contributed reporting for this story.
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