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Distilleries convert booze to hand sanitizer

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Jim Harris of Bozeman Spirits hands off his distillery's latest product, hand sanitizer, to Big Sky local John Haas for distribution to the Big Sky Community Food Bank. OUTLAW PARTNERS PHOTO

Bozeman Spirits leans on ingenuity, flexibility to fill critical need

By Joseph T. O’Connor EBS Editor-in-Chief

BOZEMAN – When John Haas got the call last week he knew it was an important one. It was from friend and business associate Jim Harris who was offering a delivery. Under normal circumstances, the gift might have been a bottle of bourbon from Harris’s distillery, Bozeman Spirits. But these are not normal times.

Instead, Harris wanted to know if Big Sky needed hand sanitizer, a product in high demand during this COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Haas, owner of Haas Builders in Big Sky and founder of the Spanish Peaks Community Foundation, jumped at the offer.

“I said ‘Great. I’ll take everything you have,’” said Haas, noting that the Big Sky Community Food Bank, Morningstar Learning Center, and a number of construction sites as well were in dire need of sanitizer.

At a time when businesses are closing doors, restaurants are limited to pick up or delivery options, and personal protective equipment is in short supply across much of the country, one unlikely sector is using ingenuity to lend a hand to an overloaded supply chain.

Distilleries around the U.S., including in Montana, are turning lemons into lemonade—or, rather, booze into hand sanitizer.

When Gallatin County forced the closing of the tasting room at Jim and Mary Pat Harris’s 6-year-old Bozeman Spirits distillery, the couple decided they wanted to help. Now, Bozeman Spirits along with Wildrye Distillery and numerous others across the state are providing homemade hand sanitizer to front-line workers including first responders, grocery stores and construction workers, and even UPS.

“We’ve been fielding calls nonstop these last few days,” Mary Pat said. “Every phone call opens up a whole new realm of what people are going through … It’s been great to just talk to people and hear their needs, what their story is, what they’re doing; helping those people on the front lines who are staying open that need to, for food, our healthcare workers.”

The conversation began at the national level with the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, known as DISCUS, and the American Craft Spirit Association, and then spread to statewide groups and distilleries, including Montana through the Montana Distillers Guild.

“We were allowed to get this fast-tracked through with the government and the FDA so we could start making it and bottling it,” Mary Pat said. “Once that started, the phones started ringing.”

The Harrises have converted some of the distillery’s production into a hand-sanitizer assembly line of sorts, though it still requires a fundamental understanding of chemistry. They’re use the distillery’s high-proof alcohol and following the formula set forth by the FDA and WHO with set ratios of hydrogen peroxide and glycerol then letting it sit for 72 hours before bottling.

Bozeman Spirits bought 1/2-gallon containers from Montana Container Corporation in Bozeman to bottle the solution, and Berry Global donated 10,000 bottles to the state through an extension of Montana State University called Montana Manufacturing Extension Center. Currently, Bozeman Spirits is bottling hand sanitizer in 375 milliliter, 1/2-gallon and 4-ounce containers.

The distillery is making approximately 35 gallons of hand sanitizer per week and with additional supplies and bottling options, the Harrises expect to produce about 100 gallons per week in the near future.

For the Jim and Mary Pat Harris, remaining nimble in a time when not everyone can find such flexibility is a key to their company’s success.

“We’re not thinking about being shut down,” Jim said. “We’ve got a purpose and the feedback has been great. For an industry that makes alcohol typically, turns it around and makes something everyone can use is pretty unique.”

“It gives us a huge sense of purpose right now and since Jim and I are right in downtown Bozeman, community is our core,” Mary Pat said. “It always has been.”

Rising to the top during these difficult and uncertain times are ingenuity and community, two crucial areas that don’t appear to be in short supply in southwest Montana.

“Everybody is reaching into their bag of tricks, what they’re good at, and it seems to be endless the number of people who are coming out and helping in ways that they can help,” Haas said. “It’s so great to have everybody reaching in and saying, ‘We’ve got this. We’re going to do our part.’”

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