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NORTH CAPE MAY – Off Shunpike Road, among acres of vineyard, there is a 60-acre farm-to-bottle distillery that is home to Nauti Spirits, which turns corn and sweet potatoes into vodka, gin, and rum.
However, the recent COVID-19 pandemic has the distillery producing a product that may be more in-demand than the popular spirits – 80% denatured ethanol hand sanitizer, made from 196-proof alcohol.
Owner Steven Miller, of Annapolis, Md., grew up visiting Cape May, and, after serving as an active-duty Navy officer, he began a career as a transactional and regulatory attorney at a top-tier Washington law firm. He has also served as a senior executive at a Fortune 150 energy company. Seven years ago, he decided to purchase a second home, in Cape May Point.
Miller said he saw that as the coronavirus pandemic progressed in the country, stores were running out of sanitizer and isopropyl alcohol because consumers were hoarding them. As a result, first responders and nursing home staff members were having trouble obtaining the much-needed products.
“I knew that ethyl alcohol is just as effective at killing bacteria,” Miller said, from his Maryland home, obeying requests for non-residents not to visit the Jersey Shore. Miller said, “The distillers and I started looking at whether we could meet a need by legally producing sanitizer with high-proof ethanol that we distill. We couldn’t under our current federal and state permits, so we started making calls to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) and to the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission (ABC) to ask how we could help meet this need.”
Miller was then contacted by his friend, Cape May resident and pharmacist James Mathews, an executive vice president at Partners Pharmacy, of Springfield, which provides pharmacy services for assisted living facilities. Matthews wanted to know if Nauti Spirits had any ethanol that he could buy to make sanitizer for his patients.
“As soon as we got the okay from TTB, we had pharmacists oversee the production of our hand sanitizer, which is made with vitamin E and tea tree oil, that helps protect the hands from the drying out and cracking that can happen with high proof hand sanitizers,” Miller explained.
Miller said producing hand sanitizer allowed Nauti Spirits to provide jobs to two full-time and two part-time employees, down from the 15 employees he had before the pandemic began in Cape May County.
“The response has been surprising,” Miller said. “We started out by giving sanitizer to local first responders and assisted living facilities. We still supply them with free product but sell to others, so we can afford to stay open. We charge about 50 cents per ounce, which is close to pre-virus price for the alcohol.”
The sanitizer is labeled and bottled by hand in eight-ounce, 32-ounce, and five-gallon containers. People from across the state have responded, including the West Trenton Fire Department, who recently drove down to pick up a batch, and a business in Newark that purchased some for their employees’ safety.
A business in California also asked if Nauti would ship to them, but it wasn’t possible.
“We have been selling the hand sanitizer from the distillery, as we do not have the personnel or funds to deliver it. That said, for larger orders, we will arrange delivery through authorized shippers,” Miller said.
“Our intention is to help people who can come out to the farm and pick up the product. We don’t sell to resellers, because we don’t want to risk people possibly being gouged for the product. This way, we can control the price,” Miller said.
The facility will continue making hand sanitizer until it’s no longer in need, or until Miller has to close up the shop.
“We would like nothing better than to go back to making artisan farm spirits rather than hand sanitizer, but hand sanitizer is the need, great spirits are a desire. Desire takes a back seat these days.”
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