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March 27, 2020

“I like to make beverage alcohol,” insists the co-owner and president of Smugglers’ Notch Distillery (SND) Jeremy Elliott ’00. But the urgency and pride with which he talks about the company’s abrupt and total pivot from spirits to ethanol-based hand sanitizer production makes it clear that, right now, he’s never loved his job or employees more.

Barely three or four weeks ago — “time’s flying so fast,” he says of the rapidly evolving novel coronavirus pandemic — Elliott and his team at SND were creating 190 proof grain alcohol and distilling it into award-winning spirits including vodkas, gins, whiskeys and bourbon. When images of bare shelves and stories of hand sanitizer shortages began circulating in anticipation of the coronavirus’s arrival in the U.S., he connected the dots between the surgical-grade alcohol that they have unique access to and their ability to mass produce it into an entirely different, desperately-needed product.

So far, SND has bottled and distributed 20,000 personal hand sanitizers — made from 160 proof alcohol, glycerol and hydrogen peroxide — to essential service workers and municipalities across Vermont. 

“When I talked to my employees and told them we were doing this, we decided to shut down everything to make this. We’re not doing any other bottling,” Elliott says. No gin, no whiskey, no other beverage alcohol. As the financial fallout of COVID-19 continues to hit the service and small business industries hard, their tough decision subsequently has been a saving grace that allows SND to keep the lights on and its employees employed.

They’ve been working around the clock since word got out about the non-profit effort and supplied bottles to fire stations, post offices, schools — including his alma mater, the University of Vermont — government offices, gas station operators, hospice centers, ambulance technicians and more. “You name it, the list just keeps going. It’s just crazy the number of folks that need it to stay safe out there, the amount of social responsibility for this is absolutely out of control,” he says.

“It’s just the right thing to do now, it’s a need that needs to get done. I’ve assembled the best team that I’ve ever had and they can see who we’re helping. I can’t explain it in words…we’re keeping the whole framework of Vermont moving at this moment. We’re keeping everybody going and there’s a sense of pride in that.”

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