Just about every business in the historic town of Purcellville, Va., was closed on the day a statewide stay-at-home order was issued to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Other than two roofers making repairs above a shuttered restaurant, the only signs of life were just inside the open front doors of a vintage brick building on the other side of Main Street.
Originally a Buick dealership, then a furniture factory, the century-old structure has been home to the Catoctin Creek Distillery for the past decade. Inside, employees were filling bottles, affixing labels, boxing, then stacking the cases shoulder high, ready to be picked up or delivered. But instead of containing Catoctin Creek’s signature Roundstone Rye and Rabble Rouser whiskeys, the bottles were full of hand sanitizer.
Critical medical resources are in short supply since the coronavirus pandemic changed the world. Volunteers are making masks on their home sewing machines and automobile factories are gearing up to produce ventilators. Meanwhile, the regular producers of sanitizer are unable to keep up with demand and experts have discouraged homemade concoctions. Recognizing a need to shore up supplies, the FDA recently authorized pharmacies and other companies to manufacture sanitizers for the duration of the health emergency, as long as they follow strict guidelines.
In the early days of the pandemic, Catoctin Creek owners Becky and Scott Harris realized they were in a position to help and had a “moral responsibility” to do so. They had the proper permits and equipment, plus 60 gallons of waste alcohol on hand that would normally be sent off to a recycler. Instead, they used it to make hand sanitizer, which was then distributed for free to the local police, clinics, and a senior center. Their efforts were certainly appreciated, but 60 gallons of sanitizer wasn’t nearly enough to satisfy everyone’s needs. If they were going to make more, they would need a lot more alcohol than a small distiller could produce. So, they ordered 1,000 gallons from one of their suppliers and set about producing another, much bigger batch of sanitizer.
Since the distillery’s tasting room is closed and tours cancelled, sales are limited to curbside pickup and stores. All of which has made it increasingly difficult to keep the business afloat. By selling the larger batch of sanitizer at cost, Becky and Scott are able to keep the doors open and their employees working. “We have not laid anybody off thanks to this project,” Scott says. The order has already been placed for another 1,000 gallons of alcohol. After that “the supply chains are going to start getting really tight,” he says. “So, we’ll see what we can get.”
Cases of the first big batch were spoken for before they were bottled or poured into plastic tubes that can be carried by police officers on patrol. Almost as soon as the sanitizer was ready, people came by to pick it up, almost all of whom were first responders of some sort.
“I’ve got such a big list,” Scott says. “Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office, city of Winchester, Leesburg Police Department, Virginia Social Services, the U.S. Park Police, lots and lots and lots of police on that list.” Harris is often at the curb for the handoff. “The police are a pretty stoic bunch. They don’t usually show a lot of emotion. These guys were smiling ear to ear when they came to pick it up.”