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St. Louis Distilleries Step Up To Address Shortages In Hand Sanitizer

2-ounce hand sanitizer bottles made by Switchgrass Spirits, a distillery in Wellson, Missouri
Switchgrass Spirits
Switchgrass Spirits gave away 1,000 bottles of hand sanitizer to its neighbors after it sent Clarksville-based beauty shop Bee Naturals a supply of high-proof alcohol to make hand sanitizer.

Barbara Chappuis, the owner of Clarksville beauty shop Bee Naturals, found it impossible earlier this month to purchase the alcohol her company needs to make hand sanitizer. 

Global supplies of high-proof alcohol have become scarce due to the outbreak of COVID-19, the disease spread by the new coronavirus. But in Chappuis’ desperate search to acquire alcohol, she found an unlikely business partner: Switchgrass Spirits, a one-year-old distillery near north St. Louis.

The distillery had a supply of methyl and ethyl alcohol, a byproduct of making whiskey and rye. Switchgrass Spirits sent Chappuis 60 gallons of alcohol nearly two weeks ago in exchange for hand sanitizer that it could give to its neighbors, said Nick Columbo, a co-founder of the distillery. 

“She wanted to buy it, and I said, 'No, we’ll give it to you for free,'” Columbo said. “What I want in return is a product that I can give away to north side community, first responders, people who work in food banks and grocery stores — basically people who need to go out.”

Other local distilleries, including Anheuser-Busch and Four Hands Brewing Company, have started producing hand sanitizer. Four Hands announced last Wednesday that it would give away two-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer and encouraged people to donate money to its relief fund for the St. Louis hospitality industry. 

Chappuis sent Switchgrass Spirits 1,000 bottles of her hand sanitizer, which the distillery gave away. The distillery’s founders didn’t want to charge people for the product after hearing stories in the news about people selling hand sanitizer for exorbitant prices, Columbo said. 

“We’re really upset by the hoarding that’s going on and the runs on crucial ingredients,” he said. “As a manufacturer, I can see it. I can see two-ounce bottles disappearing and not getting restocked. It really upset us on a deep emotional level, and we were determined to do something about it.” 

The distillery will not distribute any more hand sanitizer under its brand, but it will continue to supply Bee Naturals with alcohol for as long as it can, Columbo said. 

The COVID-19 outbreak could hurt Switchgrass Spirits’ business, if restaurants and bars continue to close this year. Bee Naturals could also suffer in the coming days and weeks, especially if Amazon stops shipping nonessential products in the U.S. Amazon sales account for 80% of Chappuis’ income. 

The collaboration between Bee Naturals and Switchgrass Spirits has helped Chappuis stay positive during the COVID-19 outbreak, she said. 

“A month ago, if you said, ‘Can you find a way to collaborate with this type of company?’ I would have said, ‘No. What does spirits have to do with bath, body and beauty care products?’” Chappuis said. “This is a terrible thing, but some great stuff is coming out of it, and that’s what’s getting me excited.”

Follow Eli on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

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Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.