Local distilleries are shifting their production lines away from their typical spirits to something that will lift spirits in the midst of the pandemic — hand sanitizer by the still-full.
“We’ve shut down our normal operations at our distillery and we’ve changed over to just producing hand sanitizer,” said Andy Schmunk, owner of Grit City Distillery in Medicine Hat. “We know we have to keep doing this until the big companies can get back on track with their own production of hand sanitizer. Until that happens, we’re going to try our best to keep this operation up.”
Like other distillery owners across Alberta, Schmunk noticed the “frenzy” to find hand sanitizer within his community and wanted to help.
“When that was unavailable in our community, we thought, ‘Is that something we would be able to produce?’” Schmunk said March 26.
With a recipe from Health Canada in hand, Schmunk’s team began producing a ‘hand cleanser’ from high-proof alcohol and aloe vera. It then began handing it out to the community for free from a tent in front of the distillery.
The response has been overwhelming.
“We’ve had thousands of people pull up with their own containers,” said Schmunk, adding each household gets a moderate amount of the cleanser. “We’re telling everybody that when that runs out, they can come back and we’ll give them more.”
That might sound like a good way to go out of business, but for Schmunk, being able to help others during the pandemic is worth the cost.
“Yes, this is costing us money of course, but for us to be able to step up and see the community’s spirit rise is priceless,” he said. “It’s one of the highest honours of my life to be able to help people out when they’re truly in need. Seeing their spirits lifted when they’re having their containers filled is priceless to us.”
Medicine Hatters are responding to this generosity with their own, he added.
Aside from people donating aloe vera to the effort when Grit City ran low, people have also been ordering food from the distillery’s restaurant and purchasing its spirits online.
“There are so many people who are so proud of this community operation that they insist on supporting us back,” said Schmunk. “Our other sales have gone up, and it’s helping cover the cost of what we’re doing here.”
The support is also helping with Grit City’s daily “pet projects.”
“Every day we try our best to focus on different organizations that are at various risk levels,” he said. “On Monday, it was the Medicine Hat Hospital. We dropped off a large amount to the Medicine Hat Hospital for the doctors, nurses, support staff, and patients.
“Tuesday’s pet project was first responders — we took care of all of our firefighters, police officers, corrections officers, even fish and game officers. This is something very specific that we can do to help people out with COVID-19.”
It’s a similar story at Troubled Monk, a brewery and distillery in Red Deer.
“We didn’t have any idea how big it would get,” Troubled Monk owner Charlie Bredo said March 24. “We just thought we’d start with a small batch and see where it went. But the demand is crazy. It’s just exploded.”
The Troubled Monk team has gone into “high gear” making a hand cleanser based on a World Health Organization recipe, packaging it in milk jugs as container manufacturers around the world battle shortages.
“It’s hard to find the supplies we need even now, and it’s getting tougher and tougher to find the supplies we need to make more of this,” said Bredo. “The recipe that we’re using is made from 96 per cent ethanol, hydrogen peroxide, glycerin, and water. So the companies that make these ingredients are just getting slammed by everyone else looking for the same ingredients.”
The nearly four-litre jugs are selling for $52 each, with a limit of two per customer, and Troubled Monk is prioritizing high-risk people and essential services for the sales.
“We’re absolutely trying our best to help people who are really high risk, but distribution is a challenge because it’s a totally different business that we didn’t have 10 days ago and now we’re in the business of trying to help people with this thing,” said Bredo.
“There have been lots and lots of emails from individuals, community groups, businesses, and charities, and we’re just trying to figure out how to help everyone.”
Shifting to hand sanitizer production has also been a way to help his business keep its doors open after being “decimated” by COVID-19.
“I’ve got a number of staff and I want to keep as many of them employed for as long as I can. That’s a really important thing for me to do,” said Bredo.
“So now we get to keep working and we get to help the community — it just seemed like the right decision.”
Schmunk agrees, and encourages others to think about how they can help as the pandemic plays out.
“When it’s your time to step up and you act on that, there’s no better feeling,” he said. “If you were to sit down and think about the ways you could help somebody else during these troubled times, I bet you could come up with 100 ideas in a hurry. It’s just a matter of acting on it.”