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'I'm glad we can help fill a need': Silverback Distillery turns whiskey into hand sanitizer for first responders

As the novel coronavirus causes rampant closures and critical supply shortages, Silverback Distillery has shifted gears from crafting whiskey, gin and vodka to creating hand sanitizer for medical staff and first responders.

Christine Riggleman, owner of the Nelson County-based distillery, said that like many others in the service industry, she and her staff have felt the effects of virus-related closures. Though the distillery still offers bottle pickup, it had to close its tasting room to help curb exposure to the coronavirus.

At the same time, Riggleman, who is married to U.S. Rep. Denver Riggleman, R-5th, noticed that stores across the state were constantly running out hand sanitizer. As the mother of two pregnant daughters, Riggleman said wanted some on hand herself, and she decided to make some of her own small-batch hand sanitizer from Silverback’s alcohol/distillate.

“Around this same time, I started hearing about hospitals and other at-risk organizations being on the verge of running out of hand sanitizer,” she said. “So we completely switched gears and started making whiskey hand sanitizer from our rye whiskey distillate.”

Though soap and water are the most effective and easy defense to break down the coronavirus, hand sanitizer can be a useful backup.

According to Riggleman, Silverback’s whiskey sanitizer meets the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for sanitizers, which recommend products with greater than 60% ethanol or 70% isopropanol for hand hygiene in health care settings.

After Silverback announced the endeavor on Facebook, they immediately started getting messages from EMTs, police officers, firefighters and doctors asking how they could obtain some of the sanitizer, Riggleman said.

“We’re all in this crazy madness right now and we don’t know if we’re going to land on our feet, but I’m glad we can help fill a need within the community.”

Silverback decided to prioritize donating the sanitizer to at-risk organizations — namely hospitals, first responders, fire departments and volunteer groups — and put together a Google Doc listing requests. In the first day alone, more than 40 organizations reached out, according to Riggleman.

The distillery has asked for donations of bottles, labels, glycerol and hydrogen peroxide and also has launched a GoFundMe campaign to fund the efforts.

The distillery is now churning out small bottles of clear gel, labeled with a blue bow-tie-wearing gorilla.

According to Silverback’s Facebook page, as of Friday afternoon the distillery has given away more than 200 bottles of hand sanitizer since Wednesday. Silverback now is shifting its entire production capacity to make as many bottles as possible.

“A local farmer has offered to sell me grain at a reduced rate and organizations and companies like Amazon have even reached out to see how they can help,” she said. “Other distilleries have also reached out to ask what our recipe is in hopes of helping fill the need.”

Silverback is also sending some of its sanitizer to its facility in Pennsylvania, where there is a canning machine the distillery can use to help distribute the sanitizer further.

There is not currently any Silverback sanitizer for sale for the general public, but Riggleman said she hopes to change that in the near future.

Since Silverback’s announcement, Vitae Spirits in Charlottesville also has started distilling sanitizer. According to the distillery’s Facebook page, much of the sanitizer has been donated to nonprofits, such as the Cville Free Food Clinic, but they also are giving away one 4-ounce bottle per person to the public or up to 8 ounces if someone brings their own container.


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