CASPER — In mid-March, Backwards Distilling Company was preparing a batch of its 307 Vodka. But before the Mills distiller could complete the process, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
The batch would become something different than what the owners had intended, a scarce product that people needed as the coronavirus reached Wyoming.
Many people called to ask if the company could make hand sanitizer as distilleries around the country began making the product, Backwards co-owner Amber Pollock said.
Pollock and her family who run the business hadn’t yet seriously considered making sanitizer or determined if it could be viable for them. They’d just closed the downtown Casper tasting room shortly before a state order to lock down many Wyoming businesses, and they were figuring out their next step. That step turned out to be making the hand sanitizer that people in Wyoming wanted but couldn’t find.
“It started to build this huge sense of urgency,” Pollock said.
The distillery has since produced thousands of gallons of hand sanitizer, first in a
partnership with other Wyoming distilleries and state government to meet needs for medical facilities and first responders.
Backwards began selling sanitizer to the public and other businesses once they knew they could produce enough. Making hand sanitizer has helped keep the business afloat during the pandemic.
“I just feel really fortunate that we were in the position to be able to do it and in a position not only to do it, but to make something that can help other people and other businesses,” Pollock said, “just help our communities generally.”
With the equipment and licensing to handle alcohol, distilleries typically have the ability to produce hand sanitizer. A few key allowances at the federal level had cleared some red tape so distilleries could produce hand sanitizer amid supply shortages, Pollock said.
“We’re just happened to be sort of uniquely positioned to be able to do that,” Pollock said.
Backwards and distilleries around the state partnered with the Wyoming Business Council and Gov. Mark Gordon to donate hand sanitizer to counties for hospitals, clinics and emergency responders. The distilleries received grant funding from the Wyoming Business Council to help in the effort.
“We got this project up and going and got our first sanitizer to folks within basically like two weeks of the very initial conversations,” Pollock said. “And it was definitely a situation where the bus was moving and you had to put all of the wheels on and everything as it was going.”
None of the distilleries necessarily had money to start a new business within their company while their revenue streams slowed to a trickle, Pollock said. She’d started making calls to brainstorm how to provide hand sanitizer where it was needed.
“And so that’s ultimately how we got involved with the Wyoming Business Council was just this idea that there are Wyoming communities who need this; there are Wyoming companies who can do it,” she said. “And we just needed help to be able to get it up off the ground.”
Others who pitched in to help include Wyoming Sugar Company, which donated several pallets of sugar to Backwards for the project, and Pepsi-Cola of Casper, which provided containers to package the sanitizer.
Once the Backwards owners knew they could meet demand for emergency responders and medical facilities, they and most of the other participating distilleries began producing additional supplies in response to a deluge of calls from private businesses and individuals with other urgent needs, Pollock said.
As the state begins to reopen amid recent eased restrictions, Backwards has sold hand sanitizer — some with custom labels — to businesses, event organizers, sports teams and more.
“So we’ve just been trying to meet the different evolving needs of entities and businesses as they come up in sort of an arena where supply chain is difficult right now,” Pollock said.
By mid-March, Backwards’ tank of nearly ready vodka had been mashed and fermented for a week followed by another two weeks of distillation to boost alcohol content to 96 percent. It could have otherwise taken several more weeks to source new ethanol and start from scratch.
“And so we happened to have some high proof ethanol basically on hand that was able to turn into hand sanitizers,” Pollock said.
The Backwards crew has had to adapt to a new operation and evolving requests, Pollock said. They’ve learned to navigate systems new to them for procurement, funding and to build a communication system among both distilleries and recipients.
The biggest challenge has been shortages in supply chains for raw materials and especially packaging, like spray and pump tops — as thousands of distilleries around the county moved to hand sanitizer production, she said. The shortages have eased but not dramatically.
Making the hand sanitizer with a Food and Drug Administration recipe isn’t the hard part. The biggest component of both hand sanitizer and liquor is ethanol, and the process is familiar. After using the tank of nearly ready vodka for the first hand sanitizer batches, the company now uses a faster process with lower-cost ingredients to keep prices similar to other sanitizers on the market.
“And so that required us to try to get more efficient with it than our normal products, which are distilled slowly and carefully, all with the flavor in mind,” Pollock said.
Sanitizer requires some different ingredients than they normally use, like hydrogen peroxide and glycerol.
They dilute the sanitizer to 80 percent alcohol, and Bitrex adds a bitter taste to prevent people from drinking the sanitizer. Distilleries may use either pharmaceutical grade or beverage ethanol.
“We’re looking for specifically beverage grade now,” Pollock said. “Because that’s actually what we like the best and what we prefer using; because it basically smells like our original stuff, like vodka. It is vodka. And that’s, for us, the best product to be using.”
The distillery offers orders and scheduled times to pick up the hand sanitizer curbside from the tasting room, where it also sells cocktail kits and ready-made cocktails.
Pollock anticipates the tasting room reopening doors in the next several weeks, though no date is yet set.
Hand sanitizer isn’t a big moneymaker, but it’s helped keep the lights on and bills paid.
“Sanitizer right now is a big part of why we are still able to be operational,” Pollock said.
Many unknowns remain for distillers, which rely on the hospitality industry heavily impacted by the pandemic. Some revenue has returned, but business hasn’t returned to normal at reopened bars and restaurants. Neither have the interactions, even at liquor stores, where people may not be spending as much time to browse and talk with staff.
“And all craft brands rely on these folks to hand-sell our product and to tell people about our product and to have those interactions where they’re willing to give our product a try if they never have,” she said.
Hand sanitizer has been a lifeline, though Pollock doesn’t view it as a long-term solution. People may return to major brands as the supply chain catches up, and whether alcohol sales would rise to meet that loss remains uncertain.
The FDA recently extended distilleries’ ability to produce hand sanitizer through the end of the year.
Pollock’s grateful the community has used Backwards as a source for hand sanitizer and they plan to continue the operation.
“We’re really proud to be able to, one, keep our business open, two, help other businesses stay open and be open and be able to do it safely,” she said. “We can help each other in that way and continue to do that as long as it’s needed and people are continuing to seek us out as an option for that.”
Overall, the Backwards team feels fortunate to be in an industry with a hidden ability distilleries never realized they had.
“And I’m really proud that our distillery and other distilleries around the state were able to mobilize on it so quickly and meet a need, also hopefully in the end save Wyoming companies, save Wyoming jobs, or at least provide that critical lifeline for the time being,” she said. “Not every industry had that ability. We just have had the opportunity to pivot and did.”