A FAMILIAR NARRATIVE: HOW ONE DISTILLERY IS PIVOTING IN THIS AGE OF COVID
WORDS & PHOTOS BY CHRIS TIESSEN
‘When we’re rolling at full steam, we can fill eight of these bottles each minute. By hand.’ I’m staring down at the pop-up table where John O’Hara – head distiller at Spring Mill Distillery – and his colleague, Leonardo (LJ) Nolfo, are working. I watch as LJ uses a single fine-tipped metal nozzle to fill a series of thirty-millilitre bottles, one at a time. With eighty percent ethyl alcohol. Hand sanitizer. Essential product for front-line workers, local businesses, and the public too. After each bottle is filled, LJ passes it to John, who seals and crates it – ready for labeling and, finally, shipping.
‘It’s tedious work,’ LJ remarks, ‘but we’re happy to do it.’ Already used to their practiced choreography, LJ and John barely break their rhythm while they talk.
The narrative they’re enacting is familiar enough. It’s a story that, during this COVID pandemic, has been repeated time andagain. In the media. On social. By word of mouth. It’s a tale of business done good. Of entrepreneurial resiliency. Of everyone from restauranteurs to seamstresses to auto parts manufacturers evolving their business models, re-tooling their production lines – pivoting in some way or another to help out in response to this unprecedented global, and local, crisis.
What I’m observing and documenting here is a single enterprise, the case of a craft distiller located on the banks of Guelph’s mighty Speed River, as it attempts to navigate the uncharted waters of COVID-19 with a renewed mandate: namely, to keep employees working and safe, to act in service of the public good, and to keep the business – Spring Mill Distillery – afloat. It’s been a bumpy ride, to be sure. But one that’s filled with heightened purpose and meaning.
‘The demand for hand sanitizer has been absolutely overwhelming,’ Spring Mill’s Cooper Sleeman tells me when we begin to talk about how much has changed in our world over the past three months. ‘Since beginning production in March, we’ve been getting over a hundred emails and phone calls each day.’ In a subdued tone, he adds: ‘The stories we’ve heard from folks needing the stuff are heartbreaking. We are sometimes overwhelmed and frustrated trying to meet the demand. But we’re doing our best. We know it’s important, urgent work.’
I’ve joined Cooper at the pop-up bottling table. I can clearly see that he’s exhausted. ‘It’s been a long few weeks,’ he says with a tired chuckle – as if reading my mind. ‘This past April marked our first full year in business. Now, instead of helping to organize anniversary festivities celebrating our earliest successes, I’m struggling just to keep this proverbial train on the tracks.’ It seems to me that everyone’s focus has shifted, and everyone is struggling to find a new equilibrium. Who would have thought so many of us would find ourselves off balance, charged to do the best we can for our community, first of all, and for ourselves? Hardly daring to imagine the future, neither far nor near.
Back in early March, Spring Mill – a John Sleeman initiative that was already distributing gin and vodka (and, in the future, whiskey, when it’s ready after a couple years of barrel aging) nationwide – was well on its way to becoming Guelph’s pre- eminent craft distiller. Home to some of North America’s largest, iconic hand-hammered copper
stills, and located in an historic mill that about a century ago housed an earlier spirits operation that (rumour has it) played a role in the Royal City’s rum-running past, Spring Mill seemed to have it all.
And then this pandemic arrived – like a sudden storm. Unpredictable. Uncontrollable. Unstoppable. ‘We couldn’t afford to have a gap of whiskey availability years down the line,’ Cooper notes, ‘so maintaining whiskey production during the pandemic became crucial.’ But what about the present? Recalling those uneasy first days, Cooper remarks: ‘Our revenue dropped almost immediately by eighty-five percent when two of our four revenue streams [Spring Mill’s fantastic ‘Ward Bar’ and licensee sales] had to be shut down.’ He looks solemnly at me: ‘And, of course, we were forced to lay off all bar staff.’
It took Cooper little time, during the earliest days of this crisis, to recognize the threat this pandemic posed. ‘I remember sitting in a management meeting,’ he recalls, ‘when our master distiller, Doan Bellman, presented a graph to the team forecasting projected cases of COVID nationally. We could see that it was only a matter of time before the virus would spread to Guelph.’ He pauses before continuing: ‘By that time, front line workers, business owners, and the general public were already contacting me to see if we might begin producing hand sanitizer. And so we dove in – deciding right then and there to re-tool.’ On the same day Ontario announced that schools would be closing for the foreseeable future, the Spring Mill team, mindful of the role they could play, began sourcing the glycerin and hydrogen peroxide needed to make the World Health Organization (WHO)-approved formula.
Today, Spring Mill produces and delivers hand sanitizer in three sizes – thirty millilitres, seven hundred and fifty millilitres, and in large milk jars too. Cooper’s sure to give credit where it’s due, noting that Kingsbrae packaging and Stanpac Inc donated sanitizer bottles, while Rayment & Collins donated the labels – which are applied, well, whenever there’s time. ‘Days at the distillery are so busy,’ Cooper remarks, ‘that most evenings you can find me applying labels to hand sanitizer bottles at home. Even my dad [distillery owner John Sleeman] takes home a hundred bottles every so often to help out with the labeling.’
I look back down at the pop-up table where LJ and John are starting in on another batch – filling empty bottles, one at a time. Eight per minute. By hand. This is what our world has become: a place where businesses – constrained, challenged – work to find their footing and to act for the public good. Doing everything they can to recover their own equilibrium and to serve their communities, too.
A familiar narrative, indeed.