The Little Distiller that Could

Many businesses woke up to an alternate reality this month, wondering how they would even survive the impact of Covid-19, trying to see a path through nothing but uncertainty. Distillers across Canada were no different, wondering if Covid-19 was going to see their dreams and hard work destroyed.

Unlike other business however, distillers found themselves stepping into an arena they had never considered for no other reason than they felt a moral obligation to serve the immediate needs of Canadians by producing hand sanitizer.

Our own Jill Rutherford of Fernie Distillers had to learn how to make hand sanitizer while laying staff off and watching 75% of her business dry up. It wasn’t easy to navigate finding ingredients, packaging and the paperwork required, but Jill said a private Facebook group with other distillers was set up so they could support one another with information sharing as they all tried to navigate how to make sanitizer.

For a small distiller, the production of hand sanitizer is very labour intensive, and very expensive to make but when Jill heard about the thefts of sanitizer at our local hospital she couldn’t help herself, “It really drove home the point to me there is a lot of fear and people can behave desperately under those circumstances.”

Responding to the need for hand sanitizer felt immediate and urgent, so alongside the fears of losing her new business Jill relied on community partners to source her first batch. All three pharmacies in Fernie participated, donating bottles and hand lotion. Fernie Brewing Company donated beer to be distilled.

“It was going to be impossible to continue my business in its new life using my regular supplies, because it would only accelerate my demise. There is no economy of scale for making hand sanitizer in a craft distillery.”

Jill’s goal was to just make sure as many people that need hand sanitizer have access to it and nothing more.

The Fernie Distillery now holds all the licenses they need to produce and sell hand sanitizer, and again, the goal is simply to get it into local stores, so the product is in front of people who need it. This new recipe is following the stricter World Health Organization guidelines and hopefully, producing hand sanitizer is one small way Jill, and distillers across Canada can slow the spread of Covid-19.

The Fernie Distillers is in the same position as many small businesses across Canada, waiting to see if applications for business assistance will be successful. The stress is mounting, “I do feel overwhelmed and am struggling with my mental health. I know [producing hand sanitizer] is something that needs to be done and will, but am dealing with all the fears of losing my new business, not being present enough with my family which is in a new reality of its own, and the constant worry about my elderly parents in Ontario. I have waves of anxiety and I want to hide under the covers.”

Despite this, Jill and so many distillers across Canada persist. They continue to serve the needs of Canadians. Right now, there are many examples of people using whatever expertise they have to work on community solutions to help us with our response to Covid-19. Many retooling into products they had never considered.

For this reason alone, there has never been a better time to support our local businesses. They have always been the heart and soul of our community, and they need us more than ever.