Wash your hands.
That three word phrase has always there in the back of our minds, but when the COVID-19 pandemic reached the United States, it was said and read everywhere – on TV, online, in print and on the radio. Everywhere you turned, you were reminded to wash your hands – often and for 20 seconds at a time.
Along with washing hands with soap and water multiple times a day, it was recommended to also use hand sanitizer, especially after being in a public place.
Hand sanitizer quickly became scarce as it flew off store shelves.
Around the country, production increased, but it couldn’t keep up with the demand.
Then an unexpected source stepped forth – distilleries.
Familiar with production of alcohol based materials, distilleries – including Smooth Ambler Spirits in Maxwelton – put spirits production on hold and turned their attention to producing hand sanitizer.
“We had all the processing equipment that we needed,” production manager Travis Hammond said. “We’re always dealing with high proof alcohol, and back when we were doing vodka – we had a history with alcohol at the proofs that we’re actually talking about. Bourbon is a little bit lower, but with that experience, we know that it has to be an explosion proof environment, explosion proof forklift handling equipment, all stainless steel so that everything is food grade and then we followed WHO [World Health Organization] guidelines.”
When the crew at Smooth Ambler saw that other distilleries were making hand sanitizer, they realized it wouldn’t be hard to do and jumped at the chance to help.
Using their connections in the distillery industry, Smooth Ambler got the needed supplies, got the WHO recipe and got to work.
“It’s called neutral grain spirits that we got from our sister distillery, Hiram Walker in Canada, and also a few other sources in the United States,” Hammond said. “From there, we reached out to a couple chemical suppliers, mainly in the western side of the state, and drummed up the other ingredients – hydrogen peroxide, glycerin and isopropyl alcohol.”
The recipe worked and, although the product didn’t have the consistency they expected, the crew had officially made Smooth Ambler’s own hand sanitizer.
“It turned out to be a lot runnier than we thought it was going to be,” Hammond said. “We thought it was going to be like Purell, and it really flows quite like vodka. Once we realized it was going to be much more liquid than we thought and it would be easier to work with, we pulled out an old bottling line that we had mothballed and used that. It worked like a charm.”
The only fear Smooth Ambler had was whether it was legal for a distillery to produce hand sanitizer for the masses. The FDA – Food Drug Administration and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau both approved the project and approved the Transfer in Bond – for the high proof spirits that were used.
So far, the crew has produced nearly 2,500 gallons and has shipped it out in 750 ml and gallon bottles to FEMA to be dispersed to areas in need.
“I would say somewhere between half and three-quarters of our product is going out to FEMA,” Hammond said. “We’ve sent to New Jersey. We’ve sent a couple batches to Montgomery, Alabama; Georgia; Dallas, [Texas]. I think we’ve done Illinois and California.
“We’ve been going through FEMA to disperse it to the places that were heavily impacted and, of course, we want to keep a lot of it local, as well,” he continued. “The hospital [Greenbrier Valley Medical Center] and the Pocahontas County Health Department came down and grabbed some. Word spreads pretty quick around here. It didn’t take long for our phones to start ringing off the hook, so we started taking down names, prioritizing first responders, healthcare providers, elderly and sorted through it from there.”
Because the company is donating the hand sanitizer, Hammond said they cannot continue to make the product indefinitely, but as long as there is a need, Smooth Ambler is now prepared to make the switch and make more batches.
“We’re doing what we can,” he said. “We’re actually kind of slowing production a little bit, but if we see that a second wave might come or our local area starts getting hit hard, we have everything ready to go to pick back up in an instant. The spreadsheets are already built. Most of the components are still on hand. All we need to continue is to get a batch of neutral grain spirits rushed in, and we’ll fire right back up.”
The swift response to the need of the community and country is in part due to the ability of the crew to adapt and chip in when and where needed.
“Our crew stepped up and was willing to learn how to change over from distilling bourbon and whiskey to bottling hand sanitizer, and kind of working a crazy schedule,” Hammond said. “They were really good to adapt and change.”
The distillery, which is normally open for tours and retail, has been closed since mid-March, only allowing customers curbside pickup for their orders.
Beginning June 9, Hammond said the tasting room will be open to a limited number of customers, following social distancing guidelines. All visitors are required to wear masks and call ahead to schedule a visit.
“We have to limit it to about three people, but we are trying to get back to some sense of normalcy,” Hammond said.
For more information on Smooth Ambler distillery, visit smoothambler.com or call 304-497-3123.