I was intrigued by a post on Facebook from Jason Barrett. The post went like this:
“8 days ago we made Bourbon for a living.
5 days ago we shut down production, in compliance with state requests.
4 days ago we learned how to make hand sanitizer.
3 days ago we made a test batch.
Yesterday, we started bottling hand sanitizer.
Today, we delivered 4,300 bottles of hand sanitizer to Rochester hospitals, doctors’ offices, paramedics and postal workers.
Next week’s goal is 15,000 bottles more.
Oh what a week this has been.
A thank you to my crew, all those who helped make this happen. It takes a family, a big Black Button Family!”
My next stop was blackbuttondistilling.com, located in Rochester, New York, to seek contact information. Allyssa Birth, brand manager, was quick to respond and connected me to Arien Rozelle, public relations manager, and Carrie Riby, director of marketing to answer my questions.
DY: That’s is an astounding turnabout! Whose idea was it?
BBD: When the governor called on New York businesses to voluntary close, we started to shut down our plant, and that meant we would have to put some of our people out of work. It takes time to wind down fermentation and distillation, so we didn’t want to be caught in a shelter in place situation where we couldn’t close and secure the facility properly.
We had almost completed shutdown when it became clear that we were going to be able to make hand sanitizer. The FDA guidance for producing ethanol-based hand sanitizer had come out [bit.ly/2JJQtKH]. And I knew that we could do it. So I searched for ingredients and we did a test batch and ordered packaging.
Within a few days, we had built an ordering system and developed a shipping system. The next day, we started taking orders from the medical community and bottling. By the end of the first week, we had delivered 4,300 bottles and exhausted our initial supply of ingredients. All week and through the weekend we sourced more ingredients and better packaging. We hope to bottle 30,000 bottles in the next 5-8 days. We will see how this week goes.
DY: How in the world does one go from distilling to making hand sanitizer?
BBD: It’s not too large of a stretch, actually. It’s ethanol-based hand sanitizer so 80% of it’s the same. The rest of it follows FDA guidance.
DY: How was the idea broached to the company employees and what was their reaction?
BBD: They were excited to be getting back to work and helping the community.
DY: Did you contact the area hospitals first, before mixing up that first batch?
BBD: We reached out to see if there was a need. Once we knew there was a need, we made the test batch and then started working on the production batch. Word has spread quickly through the medical community, so we are mostly just fielding calls and trying to help as many as we can.
DY: How extensive was it to alter your existing equipment for the new purpose?
BBD: It was more about figuring out what equipment was capable of handling the production. Otherwise, we are pretty used to handling ethanol. Just not this volume and high proof, so adjustments had to be made.
DY: How difficult will it be to return the equipment to manufacturing your spirits?
BBD: Three days, mostly cleaning and restoring to food grade. Swapping out seals and filters, etc.
DY: Will this be a profitable venture or something you are doing to aid your community by providing the sanitizer at or below your cost?
BBD: We’re pretty sure we’re not losing money at this point, but it’s right on the edge so no, this isn’t a business we want to be in, but we feel we need to be here to help our community.
DY: Once it was decided to go all-in on this venture, did your team end up working long extended hours during the 48-hour transition?
BBD: Do you consider 12-14 hour days long? For distillers, that’s actually pretty normal. The machines just take a lot of time to make good bourbon.
DY: What was the level of excitement upon completion of the first batch?
BBD: It was more the realization that now we need to make more of it and faster. There is still a lot of work to be done.
DY: How are you maintaining everyone’s health in the workplace?
BBD: Every reasonable precaution is being made, as the safety of our team is paramount to us. Social distancing, PPE for the mixologists, ventilation was already installed and runs 24/7, and cleaning between batches where the tanks get cleaned with professional brewers wash and sanitized before going back into reuse.
DY: I was surprised to see your hand sanitizer in the glass spirits bottles. (Collector’s item!) Do you have hand-pumps that can be added?
BBD: We have converted to plastic at this point. Glass was all that was available last week and should be used to refill other bottles.
GOING THE EXTRA MILE
Further research was needed: A tough job, but somebody needs to do it!
I set out to find a source for Black Button’s bourbon, gin and vodka. All of our Pennsylvania state stores have been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Riby provided this link: forwhiskeylovers.com/distillery-row/distilleries/black-button-distilling.
When I had trouble setting up a password (link wouldn’t work on my computer — grrrrr), I sent a message to Whiskey Lovers. Enter Doug Stone, a character in his own right, who had me set up within minutes to place my first Black Button order. (Take a minute to read Stone’s bio, which is a laugh riot and well worth the time.)
It’s no wonder Barrett’s passion has elevated their status as one of the top five craft distilleries in the USA. The story behind Black Button Distillery, by Jason Barrett is also worth taking the time to read: blackbuttondistilling.com/our-story.
And here is additional information from Jason Barrett:
“We own several bottling lines and have just purchased two more to keep up with demand.
We are taking orders from the healthcare community through password protected sites and larger orders are being handled by our sales team. Deliveries are being supported by the USPS and some local courier services.
Our tasting room has started a curbside pick-up and home-delivery service offering craft cocktail kits as well as our bottled spirits. Consumer support has taken us by surprise with many folks eagerly supporting our efforts.
We now have enough ingredients to make more than 250,000 bottles of hand sanitizer. We have increased our production capacity from 1,000 bottles a day to more than 10,000 bottles a day starting the end of this week.
If this has taught me anything, it is that the Black Button family can do great things and will move mountains to get the job done.”
As I have learned during this COVID-19 pandemic, businesses all across this great country are finding ways to help by making masks and other PPE gear. Additional distilleries and craft brewers are also making hand sanitizer to aid hospitals and doctors in their communities. No virus or foreign invader will ever extinguish our great American Spirit. My hat is off to all the brave frontline responders, which includes all the essential PHVAC men and women bravely serving their customers. I pray for your safety.