Silverback Distillery pivots from making whiskey to hand sanitizer in fight against COVID-19

Silverback Distillery pivots from making whiskey to hand sanitizer in fight against COVID-19

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AFTON — Employees at Silverback Distillery on Rockfish Valley Highway are still plugging away, even though concerns over the novel coronavirus have lead to a shutdown of the tasting room and sales floor.

Owner Christine Riggleman said she could allow up to 10 customers at a time to come in, but to help prevent the spread of the virus, she's only taking curbside pickup orders outside the business.

On Friday, Riggleman made one last batch of rye whiskey before she put distilling on hold to focus on making and donating hand sanitizer. 

"We still have a barrel house full of whiskey and bourbon, so don't panic," she said. "In times like this ... everyone still wants to throw back a bourbon or a shot."

The company has more than two dozen employees, and while sales haven't ground to a complete halt, sales are down, and Riggleman is doing what she can to keep product moving and employees working.

"We're trying to accept some orders so that we can keep going," she said.

But for the time being, Silverback will be making hand sanitizer to bridge the gap for fire and medical professionals, among others. She said the idea sprang to life after she made some for personal use.

"I'm making this for my future grandbabies ... I have three daughters that all work for us and two of them are pregnant, and so a month ago I ordered a few supplies ... ya know, I'm a master distiller, I'm gonna try making some hand sanitizer in case things get bad, so I'll make a batch, so I did."

When word got out to customers that Riggleman was making hand sanitizer, requests came pouring in and she said it's "overwhelming."

With demand so high for the materials needed to make the hand sanitizer, it's been hard to get the raw materials -- even containers to put the sanitizer in.

"We've only done 300 bottles because that's all we had. Three hundred small bottles and then a couple different vessels and Mason jars," Riggleman said, noting the company's facility in Pennsylvania is putting hand sanitizer in donated beer cans. "We're using whatever vessels we can find. We have more, easier products on the way like squirt bottles, but there's only so many we could find online"

Joseph Johnson, rescue captain with Gladstone Volunteer Fire and Rescue in Nelson County, stopped in to Silverback on Friday to pick up a donation of hand sanitizer. He said the bottles would be made available on fire and rescue vehicles.

Johnson said the pandemic has caused problems for emergency officials trying to order supplies.

"For the volunteer agency, I've ordered stuff and everything's on months backorder, and the Virginia Department of [Emergency Medical Services] is supposed to be gathering supplies to distribute to EMS agencies." Johnson said "They sent a survey out wanting to know what our needs were and one of the questions was 'do you have a plan for low staff and being off'. There's like five of us on call, so if someone from Gladstone gets sick like me or a couple of members ..."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have provided a recipe for the sanitizer on their website, and Riggleman said the product she's making exceeds the CDC alcohol content requirement. And the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau has streamlined requirements to allow for such a product transition.

"TTB, which is the federal approval process ... they told distillers 'look, this is a time of need and this is when the public needs us,' and I have the skill and equipment to help. In wartime situations a lot of distilleries switched over from making whiskey to penicillin, so they helped. I will do this as long as I need to, as long as they need us."

While Riggleman said she has her own financial concerns, she feels it's important to help out the best she can. She's set up a GoFundMe page to help pay for supplies to make and bottle the sanitizer.

"I'm having to amp up production to keep up with all these orders for the first responders, so my power bill's going to be quadruple what it normally is, and we don't have money coming in," Riggleman said. "We're trying to find that balance of being able to keep keep providing for them and donations so we can keep going.

"Federally, I think they're going to going to try to help distilleries. They might try to give us a little bit of assistance to try to help because we're trying to help," she said.

Riggleman's husband, U.S. Rep. Denver Riggleman, R-5th District, was zipping around the facility Friday on the phone with financial institutions. Hearing his wife's concerns about the lack of necessities such as diapers and babies wipes, he stopped to share a thought.

"This goes to protecting seniors, babies and those with underlying conditions, and all of a sudden ... thank God for her," Riggleman said of his wife.

Asked if she had other ideas to help out in the effort to stop the spread of the virus, Riggleman said she has a few things in mind.

"We might tackle spray disinfectants, but we're not sure yet," she said. "The entire world is affected by this right now. It's crazy. If you have a skill set that you can help out, or if you have time that you can help somebody, you know doctors might need food, supplies of masks. We're going to ask for volunteers to help make some masks for us.

"I don't know what's going to happen, but you have to have common decency. My parents taught me if you don't have that, what do you have? Somebody next to you that you don't even know trips, are you gonna not help them? You reach your hand out and say, 'I got ya,' and you help them up. And that's what we're trying to do."

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