Augustus “Gus” Metcalfe arranges clear plastic bottles on a long metal table at Vermont Distillers in West Marlboro.
It’s a 180-degree turn for business as usual at the distillery, one of two such operations in Windham County that have pivoted to the manufacture of hand sanitizer — a product that has been in short supply as the coronavirus pandemic has loomed.
Last week, Ed Metcalfe, the company’s proprietor and president (and Gus’s dad), added a small batch of hand sanitizer to the product line of liqueurs and vodka.
At Gus’s elbow is a barrel and battery-powered pump used to mix the concoction of ethanol, water, hydrogen peroxide, and glycerol.
“It’s a very glamorous process,” Gus says with a wink.
When not mixing hand sanitizer according to a formula from the World Health Organization, Gus usually oversees running the distillery and sourcing ingredients.
According to the Metcalfes, they had the ethanol on hand. They ordered the other ingredients from distributors, as well as extra barrels.
The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, the federal agency that regulates businesses like Vermont Distillers, has granted distilleries special permission to make hand sanitizer during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last week, the Metcalfes mixed enough hand sanitizer to fill 400 8-oz. plastic squeeze bottles. Ed said he then reached out to the local business associations and service organizations to let them know about the sanitizer’s availability.
“We’re offering this as a public service,” he said.
While available, the hand sanitizer will cost $6 for an 8-oz. bottle, of which $2 will benefit the Southern Vermont Natural History Museum, just down the road from the distillery on Route 9.
Ed Metcalfe is the founder and director of the nonprofit museum, and serves on its board of directors. The museum has lost its revenue streams under the COVID-19 restrictions, he said. It houses a small number of raptors and other animals that cannot be released back into the wild.
The museum also houses the Lumen R. Nelson Natural History Collection, which includes approximately 250 species of bird and mammals found in the northeastern United States.
The museum collects admissions fees, and Assistant Director Michael Clough travels the state delivering direct education programs.
As of Monday, the distillery still had “a couple hundred” bottles left, according to Ed. The supply remains limited, he added.
Some of the ingredients, such as hydrogen peroxide, are hard to get, he said. According to Ed, one of his distributors’ normal shipments of approximately 20 units a day have jumped to “hundreds.”
The distillery follows the World Health Organization recipe for hand sanitizer (or “handrub,” as the WHO calls it).
According to WHO guidelines, the final solutions must use 80 percent ethanol, the strength deemed necessary to kill viruses and other germs.
Hydrogen peroxide is used to kill “contaminating bacterial spores within the solution” itself rather than kill contaminates on the skin.
A final ingredient, glycerol, helps keep skin from drying out.
Organizations can substitute other humectants, but the WHO recommends glycerol because it tends to be easily available and inexpensive.
Ed Metcalfe said Vermont Distillers will continue making the sanitizer as long as the ingredients are available and there is a need.
“Who knows — there may be all the Purell in the world in a couple weeks,” he said.
As far as the pandemic’s impact on the business, he has yet to see a huge dent.
The end of March through May tends to be the slowest time of the year in the Deerfield Valley, Ed said. It’s not uncommon for businesses to run at a loss in the spring.
“If someone had asked me to choose a time of year for something like this, I couldn’t have picked a better time,” he said.
Still, Ed acknowledged the sense of uncertainty hanging over the community. He, like many local business owners, is keeping watch on potential funding from the federal and state governments.
Ed Metcalfe launched Vermont Distillers on a small scale in 2008. The company went into full production in 2012. It opened its tasting room at its Hogback location approximately 18 months ago. This summer, he hopes to have a food truck on the premises.
But that’s the summer. In the meantime, he and Gus watch for deliveries of hydrogen peroxide and glycerol.
Looking for bottles
“I think I have the chemical side sewn up,” said Christian Stromberg, the founder and head distiller of Saxtons Distillery in Brattleboro, during a phone interview.
The hard-to-get component? “Pretty much every day I’m looking for bottles,” he said.
Anyone who has “a pallet load” of plastic bottles suitable for a liquid hand sanitizer should give him a call, said Stromberg, a kidney transplant recipient who is considered immunocompromised and is taking the risk of contracting the coronavirus, and the threat of COVID-19, very seriously.
Earlier this year when hand sanitizer first flew off the shelves — and rubbing alcohol quickly followed — Stromberg turned to his product line.
The only legal way that the distillery could adapt to the escalating demand for alcohol-based sanitization products was to produce a high-proof version of the distillery’s flagship product: Snowdrop Gin.
This was before the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau gave distillers the green light in recent days to make hand sanitizer. “It’s not an agency that jokes around,” he said.
According to Stromberg, gin “comes off the still at 170 proof.” The gin is then normally diluted to 89 proof — 44.5 percent alcohol — and bottled.
This time, he kept a run of the Snowdrop at full strength — 85 percent ethanol — so that people could make their own hand sanitizer.
Since then, federal regulators have given distillers the temporary permission to follow WHO guidelines for making hand sanitizer. Like the Metcalfes, Stromberg is mixing the beverage-grade ethanol with water, hydrogen peroxide, and glycerol.
Stromberg estimates the distillery has produced 1,000 bottles of hand sanitizer so far. The bottles have all been different sizes based on what he could source at the time.
The big red labels marked “Hand Sanitizer” in big letters that the distillery uses on the bottles aren’t fancy, “but they 100 percent get the point across,” he said.
At home and in the distillery, Stromberg uses the sanitizer in spray bottles. One of the advantages of the WHO’s recipe is that it lacks any jelling agents, he said, adding that he’s found it easier to disinfect objects like door knobs with a spray.
It’s been an interesting transition learning to make the sanitizer. Stromberg and his staff aren’t used to working with flammable liquids. The distillery has good ventilation and a sprinkler system, he said, and staff keep fire extinguishers on hand.
“But still, it’s risky,” he said.
Right now, people can order the hand sanitizer online at saxtonsdistillerystore.square.site. The hand sanitizer is $10 for a 16-ounce bottle and can be picked up from the distillery’s headquarters on Chickering Drive, off Putney Road. Orders of $40 or more can be delivered locally.
Stromberg expects the community will be in COVID-19 response mode for quite some time. He wonders, too, how this experience might change society.
He thinks about his grandparents who lived through the Great Depression. It changed them, he said.
“People will have a different mentality after this,” Stromberg said. “Cross our fingers, we’re actually doing something right up here in [Vermont].”