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Caledonia Spirits shuts down its bar and store, makes hand sanitizer

Caledonia Spirits is making hand sanitizer.
Caledonia Spirits is making hand sanitizer.Linda Laban

Caledonia Spirits president and head distiller, Ryan Christiansen, and his team are always trying out new recipes for the Vermont company’s prize-winning Barr Hill Gin, aged Tom Cat Gin, and Barr Hill Vodka. This month, however, the recipe was for hand sanitizer.

“It’s incredibly simple to make. It’s basically high-grade alcohol, which we have plenty of,” said Christiansen. “We used the World Health Organization’s recommendations. We haven’t strayed from that recipe: It’s ethanol and glycerol. Ethanol we had, our factory is built for producing that. Glycerol we had to secure.”

Ethanol is a natural disinfectant and glycerol, a more pure form of glycerin, which is derived from vegetable oil or an animal’s fat, is antimicrobial. Glycerol mostly acts as a lubricant and moisturizer, though. It’s the ethanol that does the heavy lifting.

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Caledonia Spirits is making hand sanitizer.
Caledonia Spirits is making hand sanitizer.Linda Laban

Urged by the federal government when hand sanitizer shortage became a dangerous reality in combating COVID-19, Caledonia and Boston’s Bully Boy Distillery joined a nationwide movement of distilleries now making hand sanitizer.

“We thought about a team-building exercise making hand sanitizer,” said Christiansen. “Then, the local food bank asked if we could make some for them. They were like, ‘We need it badly; can you help us?’ Instead of waiting for a government or corporate response, it was something we could handle.”

Christiansen finds some irony in this situation.

“During Prohibition the government was against the distillers,” he said. “Now they’re saying we need something and we need it now, and they are asking the gin mills down the street to produce it.”

Founded in 2011 in nearby Hardwick, Caledonia Spirits moved into a new solar-powered, sustainably designed 27,000-square-foot facility in Montpelier last summer. The move added 10 times more space, which has proved useful to mobilize this additional, new production.

Gin and vodka making continue in the distillery area, but the adjacent Gin Lane bar and store, Montpelier’s undoubted hottest spot, are closed.

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“We made the very hard decision to close the bar and the store. We’re taking up the whole of the retail space for production. To truly make a difference, we have to be efficient,” Christiansen insisted.

Speaking last week, Christiansen sounded as lost and flabbergasted as the rest of us at the sudden switch in work routines and daily life. Being proactive, however, has the added bonus of boosting staff morale.

“We have not laid off anybody,” he said, “but a lot of people were stuck at home. It became this empowering moment when we set up in our lab and began the process. It was a unifying experience.”

Still, this is no feel-good exercise; it is a serious production shift to help stem coronavirus spread.

“We are not a hand sanitizer company. It’s totally new terrain,” said Christiansen. “We made enough to supply the food bank. Now we are supplying first responders. We will make 1,500 bottles for them, so it’s all hands on deck. If that doesn’t feel like meaningful work, then I don’t know what does.”