COVID-19 turned up the heat, but Archie Rose wasn’t about to call last drinks.
When Sydney’s Archie Rose Distilling CoOpens external site. took out the title of Best Rye Whisky at the World Whiskies Awards in late March, it should have been the toast of the company. Instead, a different product was on everyone’s lips. Or, rather, hands.
“We pretty much won the Oscar for Best Picture – it’s a massive award – but everyone went ‘Whoo’ for two seconds and then it was back to hand sanitiser,” Archie Rose’s head of hospitality, Harriet Leigh, says with a laugh.
The company’s most refined drop it’s not but hand sanitiser has become the fastest-selling product in Archie Rose’s five-year history. By the end of April, they’d temporarily hit pause on producing their award-winning gins, vodkas, whiskies and rums to fulfill orders instead for more than 100,000 units of sanitiser – saving 25 jobs in the process.
“We actually made it because we needed some to make sure our frontline hospitality were safe. Then when the national shortage hit, we realised it could be our Plan B,” says Leigh. “We’re not smarter or better or cleverer than anyone else – we just had 3000 litres of high-proof ethanol lying around, the primary ingredient for gin but also hand sanitiser. We had a solution right in front of us. So we decided on the Monday and it was on the website on the Friday. It took five days – the fastest turnaround we’ve ever done. And by the weekend we’d sold out all 10,000 bottles.”
Leigh jokes that she hadn’t even heard of the word “pivot” before 13 March, a date she won’t forget any time soon. “It was the day we moved into our new distillery which we’d been building for the last two-and-a-half years. I think it’s the largest craft distillery in the southern hemisphere and one of the most slick facilities in the world. This thing had been delayed for months and finally we moved in. The excitement was palpable. Then throughout the day we were getting text messages and seeing the news that everything was cancelling. By the end of the day, the whole year was cancelled.”
And with it, a huge portion of their income distilled down to nothing. “We did 10,000 events last year – everything from gin-blending classes onsite and activations at local theatres to huge events like the Brisbane Festival or the Perth Festival. Our team went from having too much work to no work at all.”
The following week, when bars and restaurants were closed, another revenue stream collapsed. Their bar, in Sydney’s Rosebery, “is very important for us for cash flow but it’s also our spiritual home, excuse the pun. So when that shut, there’s 15 people who literally had no job tomorrow.”
The company redeployed this whole team onto the packaging line (there used to be five staff) and extended employment to an additional 15 recruits, turning to international hospitality workers to fill the void – “people who have no money at all, can’t eat, can’t pay their rent”.
“Right now, success to me is employment of our people, that’s all it is,” says Leigh. “We’re all pleased to be working. We all have friends and family who have lost everything or stand to lose everything and won’t survive this. We just want to convey our thanks to everyone who has purchased sanitiser and supported us.”
And while plans to push into Asia and New Zealand later this year have been put on ice, there is a silver living. The retail market for Archie Rose spirits is booming, even more so since the World Whiskies Award. “The reaction from the public, the whisky nerds, has been huge. International shipping is going through the roof right now.”
As Australia begins to reopen, Leigh hopes demand continues for the sanitiser product as companies look to protect staff returning to offices. The events team has also moved into creating virtual cocktail experiences, helping companies host Friday afternoon drinks via video conference for work-from-home staff.
Still, nothing tastes as good as the real thing at your local. “After this, I think people are going to value restaurants and bars more than ever. I know I will,” says Leigh. “I miss meeting my friends at a bar. The day before it all went down a friend of mine from Melbourne ran up to me to give me a hug. That was the last hug I’ve had with anyone. It was a great last hug.”
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