In late February we heard rumblings about COVID-19 hitting Australian shores. Italy seemed to be going through hell and all the talk was – what’s going to happen here?
Before the first stage of lockdowns started, Ben and I chatted about how we could manage the business through the potential bleakness coming our way. Our first move was to break the staff into working panels, ensuring that no panel crossed paths with the other. This was a way of us protecting the business from shutdown, rather than it feeling like an actual threat to our health. We launched our Straight Rye Whiskey around this time – something we had worked toward for 4 years.
When the virus hit New York, a city I’d previously lived in and where I still have friends, it started to feel real, especially the health risks. To top it off, we unfortunately lost a big whiskey contract, which we were reliant on to fund the brand.
So, with revenue tanked, threat of virus and threat of shutdown, again we talked about how to survive as a business, and also about the possibility of making hand sanitiser. Straight up we noticed others were profiteering off the pandemic, selling sanitiser for $40 per litre and spruiking it as being ‘for the community’. This was a bad vibe, and it wasn’t us. We did not want to profit from such a shitty situation. We decided if we were to make sanitiser, it should be for one reason – to help the community.
For our first batch of sanitiser, we used whiskey that was not up to scratch for consumption, blending it with distilled spirit to get higher proof. We sold it in little bottles and gave all the profit away to hospitality workers who had lost their jobs. Not long after, front line workers, including hospitals, started to reach out to us. A national industrial wholesaler contacted us asking for 20,000L of sanitiser, but we turned them down because everything we could produce went to not-for-profit businesses that needed it the most.
After giving away profits (when we had no money), we knew it was going to cost us the business if we continued to do this. But people were in need and we had the means, so we stayed true to our original promise to help the community. All the way along we sold bulk sanitiser or high-proof spirit at cost.
We have since been able to get back to what we love the most – make whiskey.
Through all of this, I could not appreciate the people I work with any more. They have gone on a roller coaster ride (which is still not over) and continue to get through it. This experience has helped define what type of business I want to be a part of. Sure, I want to drink whiskey and have laughs but I also want to build a community of friends that support each other. Community was always core to our business but since the pandemic we have documented it and detailed exactly what it means - that way we can always stay the course, even in uncertain times.