For some, it was about doing what they could to help as the pandemic swept into Alberta. For others, making the switch from producing spirits to producing hand sanitizer was simply about survival.
Two years ago local alcohol producers watched helplessly as restaurants, bars and their own taprooms were forced to close their doors to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
At the same time a global shortage of hand sanitizer presented an glaringly obvious opportunity and a chance to make it through the pandemic as a small business.
Mark Freeland had just opened Two Rivers Distillery in southeast Calgary before COVID struck. He didn’t think he’d weather the economic storm he knew was coming.
“For us, we were going to be out of business. We’d only been open two-and-a-half months and we just thought ‘we’re dead,'” said Freeland.
Then Freeland noticed a story on the news. It was about a global shortage of hand sanitizer.
“I looked into it and was like ‘we can make that, and easily,'” he said.
Freeland says local breweries had a different problem — large amounts of kegged beer that could no longer be sold and would have to be dumped.
“One brewery called me and said they had one thousand litres of stout that was going to go down the drain and did I want to make hand sanitizer out of it,” Freeland said.
The process of turning one type of alcohol product into another and making hand sanitizer from scratch is relatively easy work for a distiller, said Freeland.
“Honestly, it saved our bacon. We wouldn’t have survived without it,” he said.
Two Rivers ran an offer on at-cost $5 sanitizer, initially sold from their taproom on a take-out basis, in glass liquor bottles, based on customers making a purchase of a bottle of Two Rivers spirits. Freeland says it got people searching for sanitizer through the door, landed him some returning customers and kept the business afloat, albeit barely.
“For us we wanted to help, but small businesses don’t have a lot of money, so this was our way to help,” he said.
But once big sanitizer producers and brands caught up on making the product, smaller players say the demand became less and less.
“It was a short term thing. We made it through ’til the end of COVID, which is how long our licence lasted. By the end we were only selling 20 or 30 litres per month,” said Freeland.
“Now that the regular supply chain and the brands people know are back I don’t think there’s room for us any more,” said Andrew Bullied, director of operations with Calgary’s Annex Ale Project, which has also stopped producing hand sanitizer.
“I’m not upset that we did it. I don’t think we’d ever do it again,” said Bullied, who added that making the switch highlighted the importance of local manufacturing, and what people can do when they need to.
Back at Two Rivers Distillery Mark Freeland says hand sanitizer might have saved his business from crashing and burning, but now he’s happy to move on and leave sanitizer in the past. He has a few labels left in a drawer but no bottles left to sell.
The distillery’s focus is now firmly on hopes of a busy summer drinking season, a better year financially and continuing to fight to keep the business afloat for another year.