Three years after he sold his first bottles of vodka and gin, Ray Disch found his Sourland Mountain Spirits distillery humming along.

The Hopewell Borough-based spirits-maker had just released its two-year bourbon whiskey to much fanfare in February and had another new product—a coffee liqueur—on the way. SMS had hired sales and marketing staff, and Disch was seeing the business plan he conceived in 2014 start to bear fruit.

And then the novel coronavirus struck.

The distillery’s store behind Brick Farm Tavern has remained open, as Sourland Mountain Spirits hoped to serve people interested in their products through deliveries and call-ahead pickup. But the virus and the social distancing measures that came with it meant business began tapering off. Consumers’ tastes shifted from small-batch, locally sourced craft spirits to cheaper products in large quantities.

A bottle from the first batch of hand sanitizer produced by Sourland Mountain Spirits in Hopewell.

“We were doing really, really well until March hit,” Disch said. “We were ready to grow the business. And then we got crushed.”

But an email from a trade group clued Disch into an unlikely savior: hand sanitizer.

Turns out, distilleries like Sourland Mountain Spirits are uniquely positioned to meet the soaring demand for the alcohol-based hygiene product. SMS already possessed the license needed to obtain large quantities of neutral grain alcohol, the base ingredient in vodka, gin and hand sanitizer. The American Craft Spirits Association worked with federal and state agencies to receive approval for distilleries to switch their focus. And the team at SMS, including Disch’s son Sage, has embraced the opportunity to join the national effort against COVID-19. 

In fact, SMS has stopped production of spirits entirely, and has jumped full into making hand sanitizer for the moment.

“Our team here, it would have been understandable if people said they wanted to stay at home,” Disch said. “We have 100% of our team working to produce this product, and I can tell you, each individual feels a little bit of satisfaction and a little bit of ‘I’m contributing to the greater good.’ And I’ve never seen that before. It’s like, at least you’re doing something. Your own little niche. Turn lemons into lemonade. When you’re sitting there watching the TV, you’re asking yourself, ‘What can I do? What can I do in my own little way?’”

Last week, the distillery made its first delivery of more than 2,000 bottles to Capital Health Medical Center in Hopewell, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in Hamilton, Homefront in Lawrence and the county’s COVID-19 testing site in the Quakerbridge Mall parking lot.

SMS receives about 10 requests by either phone or email every day for its hand sanitizer, with hospitals and first responders snapping up all the available product. Disch does not envision Sourland Mountain Spirits’ hand sanitizer being available for consumer purchase in the near future.

The main reason for that is a shortage of the materials needed to produce hand sanitizer. The recipe itself is simple—neutral grain spirit, aloe and hydrogen peroxide—but the sudden shift in distilleries’ production nationwide means there isn’t enough neutral grain spirit or empty hand sanitizer bottles to go around.

SMS currently produces 8-ounce and 64-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer, and Disch has encouraged his clients to buy the larger size and then fill up existing smaller bottles with it. He also has advised hospitals to save any used hand sanitizer container it has.

Neutral grain spirit—essentially the highest proof of the Everclear grain alcohol available in stores—has proven even more scarce. There are only four or five big producers of neutral grain spirit in the United States, and every distillery in the country has increased demand for the product. There are nearly 2,000 distilleries in the United States, and that number doesn’t include large corporations, such as Anheuser-Busch, that have tried to get in on the hand sanitizer market.

The huge demand has caused delays and backorders. Sourland Mountain Spirits receives a regular delivery of one 275-gallon tote of neutral grain spirit every two weeks. But its usual orders have wound up being delayed, forcing SMS to the open market to find the ingredient most essential for its hand sanitizer. Disch wound up purchasing some at twice the price he normally pays.

One 275-gallon tote is enough to make 5,000 8-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer.

“Everything’s backordered,” Disch said. “Deliveries are delayed. Some of the big boys are buying up a lot of the neutral grain spirit. Little guys have to find alternative solutions. We basically spent [last] week, starting on Monday, three of us working almost full time just to source neutral grain spirit.”

Sage and Ray Disch hold bottles of their distillery’s newest product: hand sanitizer.

But craft distillers have banded together in order to help out each other. The Garden State Craft Distillers group has been sharing information and resources with all its members. Distilleries are directing potential customers to the craft distillery closest to them. For instance, a person in Princeton calling a distillery in Monmouth County would be referred to Sourland Mountain Spirits.

Each business is doing what it can to support its counterparts.

“It’s a small industry, but it’s the unified industry, and we’re all helping each other get through this,” Disch said. “People are not running all over the state trying to outdo each other or outbid each other.”

This wasn’t any clearer than when Disch received a phone call from a former colleague at Sourland Mountain Spirits. Now at another distillery, the man had obtained an entire tanker full of neutral grain spirit. He planned on allocating it out to individual distilleries, and wanted to know if Disch needed some. It wound up replacing the delayed delivery Sourland Mountain Spirits usually receives.

“It’s very cool to be part of a national movement of craft distillers that are really stepping up to the plate,” Sage Disch said. “A lot of people are taking a risk, even though it’s a calculated risk, of shifting production, supplies, time, energy and resources to something that’s totally new. It’s been really exciting and encouraging to see how many people want or are willing to take that risk, and to see the camaraderie of the people who are working together.”

In addition to Sourland Mountain Spirit, a number of other New Jersey distillers have begun producing hand sanitizer. Those include: Jersey Spirits Distillery Co. (Fairfield), Long Branch Distillery (Long Branch), Corgi Spirits (Jersey City), Asbury Park Distilling Co. (Asbury Park), Silk City Distillers (Clifton), All Points West Distillery (Newark), Milk Street Distillery (Branchville), Nauti Spirits Distillery (Cape May), Claremont Distillery (Fairfield), Island Beach Distillery (Forked River), Lazy Eye Distillery (Richland), Little Water Distillery (Atlantic City), Train Wreck Distillery (Mount Holly), Tree City Spirits (Kenilworth) and Independent Spirits Distillery (Woolwich).

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