As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps across the nation, it was revealed that we were critically short on certain medical necessities including hand sanitizer, masks, and ventilators. 

Many feared for what would be a soon to come shortfall on these items that are medically critical to prevent further spread of the virus and effectively treat those who have it. Thankfully, private enterprise has stepped up to the plate in a historic way. Businesses are transitioning to fill the existing gaps and provide the supplies that the country needs. In Mississippi, we have seen local business leaders bravely take risks in order to fill critical medical needs. 

A few days ago, I had the chance to speak with David Rich of Rich Grain Distilling Company in Canton. He has shifted his entire company from making bourbon to producing hand sanitizer en masse.

When it comes to sanitizer, it has proven a vital and yet over-purchased resource, leaving many fire departments, police units, hospices, hospitals and more in serious need. Hand sanitizer is an incredibly important tool for countering this virus and deterring its spread.

Unfortunately, many folks are finding their local providers’ shelves to be empty. While in a local drug store a few weeks ago, David noticed that the store was running out of hand sanitizer, so he offered to try making some.

What began as a hobby years ago, led to a distillery, and now is the reason that thousands in Canton, including many emergency service providers still have access to hand sanitizer today. A Madison County native, David was working in mechanical engineering for a defense contractor while researching bourbon and its production in his free time. Ultimately, he decided to pursue his dream and opened the doors of Rich Grain Distilling in 2016.

In a normal situation, burdensome regulations would have prohibited distilleries such as Rich Grain Distilling from being able to make this transition. Luckily, as David noted, the “federal government decided to lift certain regulations,” allowing for specific companies such as distilleries to move their operations into the production of much-needed resources like hand sanitizer.

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau waived requirements to obtain permits to legally manufacture hand sanitizer and removed the excise tax for alcohol-based hand sanitizer products. That wasn’t all. The Food and Drug Administration then had to issue guidance saying they do not “intend to take action against manufacturing firms that prepare alcohol‐​based hand sanitizers for consumer use and for use as health care personnel hand rubs during this ongoing public health emergency.”

The difficult element of the transition was processing ingredients and working with suppliers to secure necessary bottles and other resources. High proof alcohol is then mixed with other products in the necessary process to create sanitizer.

While he’s making less per unit, demand has been high, and this has allowed him to retain his staff and even bring on a few new employees. Thus, he is not only fulfilling the critical needs of his community by helping local providers but is also able to continue offering a steady paycheck in a time of dire economic need for many.

I asked David if he had any plans for continued sanitizer production once the coronavirus crisis is over and he noted to me that, he doesn’t “want to be in the hand sanitizer business.” Naturally, he’d greatly prefer to be making the bourbon that first inspired his distillery to open. But, for now he’s happy that he’s been able to help people in his community. Indeed, I think while some are currently missing the taste of Rich Grain Distilling bourbon, it will be appreciated all the more in the future, especially knowing how David Rich took business risks to help his community when it was most in need.

David is currently operating at capacity, and so unless you are a representative of an emergency service or essential business, please do not attempt to place any current additional orders of sanitizer.

These businesses that are stepping up deserve to be highlighted, and so the Mississippi Center for Public Policy is launching a series dedicated to doing just that. Over the coming weeks, we aim to continue showcasing the stories of these local businesses, including Blue Delta Jeans in Oxford and now Rich Grain Distilling Company, who have willingly given up their normal operating procedures to help as many people as they possibly can.

If you know of a local Mississippi business that is helping those in need during this critical time, we’d love to highlight the work that they’re doing. Please email Hunter Estes via estes@mspolicy.org to discuss further.