Ruta Smith

As if settling into a new home is stressful enough, two Charleston-area distilleries are making their new homes during the pandemic. And both have stepped up to help their communities during these tough times.

Firefly Distillery co-owner Scott Newitt has had his moments of doubt, but he’s making the most of it as his team pads out their new 20,000-square-foot facility in North Charleston

“It hasn’t been fun, but we’ve done the best we can,” said Newitt. “We’ve kept all of our full time people on, and we’ve done some retail sales out of the 30-year-old Airstream out front. There’s been a little income there.”

With a good chunk of restaurants and bars closed, Newitt and head distiller Jay MacMurphy decided to sink their teeth into making the product that’s been in record high demand since the start of the coronavirus outbreak: hand sanitizer.

“We just saw a need in the market and people were asking us about it,” said MacMurphy. “Once the need came up, we were just trying to get licensing from the [Food and Drug Administration]. They were super busy too, so it was hard for them to make things happen quickly.”

“We’ve dedicated a bottle filler and tank to the sanitizer because it’s ‘denatured,’ meaning you can’t drink it,” MacMurphy said. “For the sanitizer, we do all the blending by hand in the one tank whereas normally we would move the spirits from tank to tank to blend it.”

The production process only uses one filler and tank, but packaging the new product is resource intensive. “Our bottling line is a finite space, so we can really only bottle one thing at a time in the space that we have,” explains MacMurphy. “It’s disruptive for sure, but we are making it happen. We have the means to do this and we also have a social obligation, so we are doing it no matter what.”

High Wire Distilling Co. is also using the shiny equipment at their new Huger Street space downtown to make hand sanitizer.

“We made a small run about a month ago quietly and donated that to some frontline folks,” said co-owner Scott Blackwell, who reports there are only three employees working at the 23,000-square-foot facility they moved into days before Charleston Wine + Food Festival. “We are in the midst of making more sanitizer and are going to do 1,500-1,600 gallons to start.”

Blackwell held off larger-scale hand sanitizer production at the start of the pandemic while he waited for guidelines from the World Health Organization, who eventually came out with a formula for distilleries looking to pivot their operations.

High Wire and all distilled spirits facilities must use a combination of 80 percent alcohol, 3 percent hydrogen peroxide, glycerine and distilled water. The resulting product has a thin, liquidy consistency, unlike gel or foam sanitizers. Blackwell, who has been making sanitizer for years to spray down and clean their facilities, said the common gel hand sanitizer found in pharmacies contains 63-70 percent alcohol.

Blackwell said he would prefer to use his brand-new 8,000 still to make whiskey but, he said, producing the hand sanitizer has been rewarding. First and foremost, they are helping the public stay clean and healthy.

Secondly, Blackwell said, the decision to use yellow corn from an Orangeburg farm also helps the South Carolina farming community.

Hand sanitizer may have taken over the day-to-day operations at both distilleries, but Blackwell and Newitt are starting to think about how they plan to move forward once patrons are allowed back inside their establishments.

“We’re going to open on our terms when we are ready and feel like it’s safe for our people,” said Blackwell. “We’ve got room for about 65 people seated now, so we could move to a strict reservation-only model for tours and tastings. We are going to be overly cautious.”

Over at Firefly, Newitt is developing specific measures for operating while maintaining social distancing.

“We have a stage off the back of our distillery that’s 45-by-30 feet and we are going to put three tasting bars out there,” said Newitt. “We want the consumer to feel comfortable, and I think if, at the beginning ,we do everything outside, it will help everyone ease into a comfort level for when people are able to go inside restaurants, stores, and whatnot.”

Despite the uncertainty that lies ahead, Newitt said he’s optimistic that Firefly’s can persevere. “We came out with Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka in April of 2008 in the middle of the mortgage crisis and we launched this building in a pandemic,” said Newitt. “The feel with our company is that if there’s a problem we’re going to figure out the best way to solve it that’s legal and safe. That’s just who we are.”

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