When three longtime friends started Scottsdale’s first distillery, hand sanitizer wasn’t on the menu. Now, it’s what they’re known for.
Blue Clover Distillery’s house-made artisan gins and vodkas have been a hit with visitors and locals alike since its doors first opened in 2017. Customers also loved to gather for drinks and food at the distillery’s lively adjacent bar and restaurant.
Those loyal customers come for hand sanitizer these days. In March, as COVID-19 began to upend life across the country, Blue Clover started making the gel to aid the fight against the pandemic.
“We saw it as a way to help with the coronavirus situation and try to survive as a business,” co-owner Weston Holm says of Blue Clover’s unexpected pivot.
The distillery’s story offers a window into the unique role small businesses can play in their communities, as well as a case study in adaptability. Holm says the demand and appreciation shown by Arizonans has been “overwhelmingly excellent” since he and his partners first tested the idea.
“We threw a fish hook out there to see how it would go,” Holm says. “But we didn’t realize a whole net of fish would come back.”
Success, then a surprise
Holm and his Blue Clover co-owners, the father-son duo of Duane and Scott Koch, have always been hands-on people. They constructed the distillery themselves. The trio didn’t possess a wealth of experience in the bar and restaurant industry, but trusted that some inherent personal qualities would give their business a strong chance at success.
“We’ve just always loved to work hard and loved to entertain,” Holm says.
This industrious and welcoming nature paid off fast. Positive reviews poured in online. Occasional social media shout-outs from the mixed martial arts star Holly Holm – Weston’s sister – didn’t hurt them either. Business was good and growing.
Then came COVID-19. On March 19, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey issued an executive order for all counties with confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus: Restaurants were to switch to carry-out service only, and bars, gyms, and movie theaters were to close.
Just like that, Blue Clover’s boisterous business skidded almost to a halt. The thriving operation joined the ranks of small businesses trying to cope in the face of government orders for physical distancing.
A fast – and unexpected – pivot
Luckily, the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau had issued a notice of its own the day before Governor Ducey’s order: distillers nationwide were authorized to produce hand sanitizer as a way of helping combat the spread of COVID-19. Health experts say using the germ-killing gel can be a useful mitigation measure if it contains greater than 60% alcohol.
Holm and his business partners wasted no time. Hand sanitizer was already on Holm’s radar—while reading news reports about shortages of the product he recalled frequently seeing it on production reports Blue Clover is required to fill out for the federal government as a maker of alcohol products. Something about which he’d previously given little thought suddenly had new meaning.
Minor equipment adjustments were required but Holm says making gin and vodka is more complex than producing hand sanitizer—which was suddenly in short supply at drugstores and supermarkets. Blue Clover’s process starts by using excess, extremely high-percentage alcohol from the sprits-producing process. Glycerin, hydrogen peroxide, and water are then mixed in for a thicker consistency and to dilute the alcohol content. The final product is 80% alcohol.
“There’s a real sense of feel-goodness when you hear a story like, ‘This is going to my mother who is in a nursing home,’ or when you know this is going to people on the frontlines,’” Holm says. “It’s good to know that we are able to help at a time of need instead of just producing alcohol for consumption.”
Blue Clover is part of a national trend as distilleries across America execute a temporary pivot that helps them navigate tough economic times as well as contribute to a larger effort against COVID-19. Distillers from Connecticut to Colorado have made the switch.
Blue Clover donates some of what it produces to healthcare workers and law enforcement, then sells the rest. Customers can buy bottles or fill their own containers at the restaurant—while grabbing some gin or vodka to-go while they’re at it. The distillery is even selling more than 2,000 bottles of sanitizer to Bank of the West; it’s been a bank client since first opening in 2017.
The seed that ‘sprouted on its own’
Holm says hand sanitizer is helping Blue Clover stay afloat amid a challenging period, and they should be able to remain in business through the COVID-19 crisis as long as they are able to continue sourcing their bulk ingredients. That doesn’t mean things are easy, though.
“We’re just lucky to be able to be in this situation where we can provide,” Holm says. “A lot of other small businesses are really hurting. We’re still dealing with a lot of stress as well, and we understand the gauntlet everyone is running right now.”
If there is a lesson other small business owners can take from Blue Clover’s story, Holm says it’s about staying adaptable and ready to act upon unexpected opportunities.
“As a business owner, you have these certain seeds planted that you want to grow,” the spirits-turned-sanitizer maker says. “But this one kind of sprouted on its own, so that’s the seed we’re watering.”
After the coronavirus passes, Holm says Blue Clover looks forward to focusing on gin and vodka again. In the meantime, Scottsdale locals appreciate the distillery’s efforts to help.
“The ingenuity of this business to use their supplies to provide much-needed hand sanitizer to the community earns them 5+ stars,” reads one recent review on Yelp. “Can’t wait until life is back to normal and we can enjoy a hand-shaken Bloody Mary and lunch on the patio. Class act, support local businesses.”