In the time of a global pandemic, producing spirits remains an essential industry, whether or not it’s officially considered such—and a job that most definitely can’t be done from home. Many owners of small distilleries have a science background and are employing their familiarity with research and evidence-based recommendations to keep their staff and customers safe.
A Culture of Safety
Employing the latest recommendations for keeping workers safe is paramount at Privateer Rum in Ipswich, Massachusetts. “We’ve used our positive safety culture to help reframe the way our broader harm-based societal culture often looks at risks and safety,” says Maggie Campbell, Privateer’s president and head distiller.?
Since the start of the pandemic, Privateer’s staff has maintained distinct work stations and redundant equipment in order to reduce employees’ need to share equipment or stray from their work areas. Masks are required at all times, with N95s preferred. The space is vented regularly, and visitors are forbidden.?
Campbell uses the example of the COVID protocols she and her fellow scientist husband follow for household chores like shopping for groceries. In order for them to work, they need to be set and followed, with each person remaining steadfastly accountable to the other—the same practices employed at the distillery. “When people begin to stray from protocol, they lose control of the ‘data,’ and things get messy really fast,” she says.?
Statistical science dictates that if you aim for safety 100% of the time, you’re probably actually hitting it closer to 80% or 90% of the time, says Campbell. “You want your 80% to work with others’ 80% like layers of Swiss cheese, to create a total seal against risk.”
Following Latest Recommendations
At Durham Distillery in North Carolina, the husband-and-wife team of Lee and Melissa Katrincic has remained in continuous production through the pandemic, securing a commitment from the distillery’s team to follow CDC recommendations even when they’re not at work. Though the distillery has suspended tours and kept the tasting room closed since March, it was able to open the distillery’s bar, Corpse Reviver, in October, after spending five months researching and implementing safety protocols.?
Lee’s B.S. and M.S. in chemistry formed the springboard to a 20-year career in pharmaceutical research and development, while Melissa earned a degree in physics. The couple has applied their shared science backgrounds in establishing an environment for their workers and guests that’s as safe as possible. The bar requires a health screening of its patrons, as well as a contract-tracing agreement. The Katrincics have installed an upgraded HVAC with medical-grade air-filtration systems, plus plastic barriers, cross-ventilation and heated outdoor spaces, and have instituted a frequent cleaning schedule and capacity and distancing limits, with mask use required. “We know that there are always going to be risks, but as scientists, we must think through the measures that reduce exposure,” says Melissa.
Similarly, Peter Ahlf, the head distiller at Mount Defiance Cidery & Distillery in Middleburg, Virginia, spent 20 years in the space program, including 16 years at NASA headquarters. “Engineering facilitates learning new things and understanding how things work—both important aspects of the distillery business,” says Ahlf. In practical terms, these days this means employing recommendations such as using disposable plastic cups and QR code menus at the cidery, thereby reducing shared contact, as well as changes like simplifying the distillery’s menu to minimize interactions between guests and staff.?
Campbell sits on the board of the American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA), which recently named Becky Harris, the co-founder and chief distiller of Catoctin Creek distillery in Purcellville, Virginia, as its president. Before launching the distillery with her husband, Scott, in 2009, Harris had a career in chemical engineering, specializing in industrial processes and production systems in materials including oil, gas, refining, plastics and styrofoam. Though she doesn’t see a science background as necessary for a distiller, it drives home a safety mindset. “I see it more like a set of tools that I can deploy, rather than something I use all the time,” she says. At Catoctin Creek, employees have the same work and friend group, she says, which helps keep COVID “pods” small. In addition, the tasting room and distillery plant are completely separate from each other, with distinct ventilation systems.?
Frequent outreach to welcome and update ACSA members is a regular part of Harris’ new role. The organization has also made all of its online educational material free to members so they have science-based resources to reduce learning curves—and ideally to help flatten the infection curve, as well.?