Hand sanitizer keeping Tennessee Hills Distillery afloat — and hiring

Jonathan Roberts • Apr 16, 2020 at 7:00 AM

What started as a small batch of in-house hand sanitizer to help support the community has quickly become Tennessee Hills Distillery’s lifeblood amidst the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has sent traditional spirit sales plummeting.

“Initially it was something we did to help the community by generating some funds that we could give back,” said distillery owner Stephen Callahan, “and then it quickly became a business opportunity to where we were able to hire six more people. We’ve had a pretty good opportunity come out of something pretty terrible.”

Last month, the distillery made 1,000 travel bottles and sold out in a matter of hours. Since then, they’ve focused almost entirely on producing, manufacturing and filling bottles of sanitizer three days out of the week, compared to just one producing spirits last week.

At the beginning, Callahan estimated they could produce around 2,000 bottles every few days. Now, they’re producing roughly 500 gallons a week — enough to fill more than 30,000 of the 50-milliliter bottles, in addition to the half-gallon and gallon jugs they also produce. Bottles range in price from $2 to $40.

Recently, the distillery also signed a contract with Knoxville-based truck stop chain Pilot Flying J (now known as Pilot Co.), which will sell the bottles in their stores nationwide. For their first order, the distillery shipped Pilot Co. 50,000 bottles of the hand sanitizer. 

“Pilot Company is proud to partner with fellow East Tennessee businesses, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Pilot’s Chief Merchant Brian Ferguson said in a statement to the Press. ‘We were thrilled to secure a large order of hand sanitizer from Tennessee Hills Distillery and appreciate their efforts to adapt and provide critically needed supplies at this time.” 

Tennessee Hills also provides sanitizer to companies and organizations across the region, with people traveling in from Chattanooga, Knoxville and Georgia to purchase some of their product.

“We went from a small production facility to almost busting out of the seams overnight — we’ve had to get creative and put in a lot of long hours,” Callahan said.

Callahan said they had to stop taking online orders because the demand was so high. After launching online ordering, more than 300 orders came in in less than 24 hours. A portion of the proceeds and bottles of hand sanitizer are still being donated to local organizations.

“We’re just trying to fill in where there’s a need,” Callahan said. “We’re just trying to figure out who can use the money the most and use it immediately.”

“It’s one of those things where it happened, you got to be very grateful for it and very thankful for it and you got to go do good with it,” Callahan added. “You got to count your blessings and hand sanitizer has definitely been one of them.”

Callahan said the COVID-19 pandemic “might be our generation’s wartime effort,” and that he’s proud of the work they’re able to do.

“This is one of those things that, 20 or 30 years down the road, we’ll look back and smile and be proud that we had the ability to do (what we did) and handled it the way we did,” he said.

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