Inspiring Views from the Bright SideSM
An Interview with Christine Riggleman
1. What are the goods/services offered by your primary business?
We are a distillery and produce: Beringei Vodka, Strange Monkey Gin, Blackback Rye Whiskey, Blackback Honey Rye Whiskey, Blackback Bourbon, Prohibition 151 Edition Moonshine.
2. What did you launch in response to the COVID-19 pandemic?
We switched from making whiskey to distilling hand sanitizer.
3. What steps did you take to develop and promote your new initiative?
We had to go through federal agencies that regulate us. TTB and FDA. Once we had their approval then we used social media, news outlets and our website to promote that we were making hand sanitizer.
4. What or who inspired you to undertake this effort?
Two of my three daughters are pregnant and a few months before it hit the U.S., I thought it would be a good idea to learn how to make it for them in case there was a shortage of it. We had some left over and we put it online so that we could donate the rest to first responders and hospitals. Our phones lit up like a Christmas tree and wouldn't stop with people needing more. So, we immediately switched from making whiskey to sanitizer on our own funds and donations to give away to those that were on the front line fighting this virus.
5. What results have you seen so far from this initiative?
We have been able to supply major hospitals that would have run out of hand sanitizer, police departments, EMT's, nursing homes, freight line drivers, courthouses, hotels, non-profits, homeless shelters, grocery store workers, restaurants, wineries, community service organizations, postal workers, medical transport companies, firefighters, Universities and many more. The thank you cards from the people that have received our donations have been humbling. We have had local wineries (Horton and Trump Wineries) donate wine and a local brewery (Star Hill Brewery) donate beer to help us have product to distill into hand sanitizer. It cuts our turnaround time down from 7 days to just a few.
6. How do you define success for your project?
The responses from the people that have received our product and the relief they have knowing that they have another layer of protection from the virus. As well as some companies were demanding that employees have a bottle on them in order to be able to work, but they had to find it themselves. So, it enabled them to continue working during this pandemic. We had the skill set and equipment to be able to step up and help during this time and we did. We stopped production of our own whiskey at a great cost to our own business to make sure that we could help out as many workers on the front line as we could. I am sure we will have a gap in our whiskey releases a few years from now, but it was worth it to be able to help out during a time when our skillset and equipment was needed. My heart has been filled with such warmth from seeing the joy on the faces of the people that have received our hand sanitizer and all of the thank you cards they have sent us.
7. What are the biggest challenges for you to meet your goal?
Government agencies that control us were our biggest hurdles. TTB which is our biggest governing body was amazing. They immediately switched modes and stepped up to the plate and gave all distilleries one recipe to use. If we used that recipe, we were good to go. To help save time and to streamline the process. They also issued us temporary Industrial DSP's (Distilled Spirits Permits) to be able to make the sanitizer legally until December 2020. The biggest hurdle was the FDA. They were mandating how we had to do many process, labels, and that each distillery that was creating sanitizer had to get approval and each label had to get approved. Their site kept crashing. It couldn't handle all of the distilleries trying to get their approvals through their websites. Their process was not intuitive to navigate. We are a bit unique and have 2 distilleries in 2 different states. We were on two different email threads with all the distilleries in Virginia and Pennsylvania all trying to help each other figure out the FDA site and how best to answer the questions to get our approvals. We tried to streamline one label that listed all of the sizes we had bottles for. That would have streamlined our label graphics, printing time, and ease of having one label that you highlight which size you were filling. They made us design and print labels for each size bottle. We also couldn't sell any of the product until we had FDA approval. We also had a tremendous problem with finding the bottles and caps and some of the ingredients to create the sanitizer. Bottle companies sold the bottles, but most did not also sell the caps. That was a different company. And it was difficult finding matches to both. And then coordinating the labels for each size bottle we could find simultaneously to try to have them all arrive at the same time very extremely difficult and stressful.
8. How long do you anticipate continuing this effort?
We had thought that the hand sanitizer companies would be able to be back online by keeping up with the demand within a month or two. We thought we just needed to assist them in filling in the gap. We were very off on our estimates. We are still making sanitizer almost 3 months later. We still have a lot of orders to fill and more coming in every day. According to our latest estimate on the orders coming in, we will still be making sanitizer until mid to late fall. If the demand is still there, we will continue producing it the cutoff date that we have to legally stop.
9. What have you learned by undertaking this project?
That we have an amazing staff at both of our locations. We were one of the few employers that we're able to keep every full time we had on payroll employed and working. And were even able to add a few of our part-time staff to help out as well. We realized the demand and need were tremendous and we didn't hesitate to help. When we were taking donations, we were very humbled from the generosity of people all over the United States. We also learned that different government regulatory agencies helped, and some made the process very frustrating. That the supply chain was severely interrupted during this pandemic which made creating the final product very difficult.
10. How can others learn more about your COVID-19 response efforts?
You can go to our website: sbdistillery.com or our Facebook pages: Silverback Distillery and Silverback Distillery Poconos. Or our Instagram accounts: @silverbackdistillery and @silverbackdistillery_poconos