Long before this crisis, on being asked what was her favourite thing about Islay, Ailsa Hayes replied, “Just the vibe of living on the island. Everybody is out to help everybody and I just love the community spirit.”
Today, it is Ailsa’s own resourcefulness and generosity that is being put to the use of the community here. Her day-to-day occupation is managing our Laddieshop and its back-office, but her background is in applied chemistry. She worked for a multinational pharmaceutical company in South Africa and London before coming back to her native Argyll to raise her family. She’s no stranger to leadership; since 2005, she has had a hand-made soaps business in Islay, which she started in her kitchen, using local resources – both plants and single malts – as ingredients. “Bruichladdich were the first to allow me to make soap from their whisky,” she recalls. For the last 5 years, she has leased her Spirited Soaps works in Bowmore to young Ileach Gemma McLean, who with innovation and patience is managing to sustain it as a vibrant independent business.
Last week, Ailsa and Gemma created their initial formulation of Islay hand sanitiser. It was a 30L batch of alcohol hand gel, for which they themselves supplied the ingredients. They gave it out in response to emergency shouts from the Hospital, Gortanvogie Care Home, and the High School. The district nurses had run out of sanitiser two days earlier, which was hampering their delivery of care to the community, so they were elated, saying it was, “the first good news we’ve had in a while.”
Ailsa and Gemma have now made a batch of the sanitiser 10 times the size to try to meet the island’s shortage, resulting in 1000 250ml bottles. In a population of 3200, their efforts have the power to make a significant difference to people’s lives and peace of mind. There is a limit to how much they can produce at once, however, so the hand sanitiser won’t be for sale, and won’t be available off Islay.
The distillery was moved to help. We were able to provide some raw material, to which was added the other soap-trade ingredients such as aloe vera gel and essential oils, meaning the sanitiser meets WHO best practice on alcohol concentration and complies with other cosmetic regulations. There were financial hurdles caused by the customs and excise duty due on the alcohol. Bruichladdich was able to support with those before an easement regarding authorisation, excise, and classification came through from HMRC late on Monday. Meanwhile, on top of managing the Laddieshop-in-shutdown and looking after her distillery team, Ailsa made her way through all the necessary registrations and complex legislation that would enable them to get the hand gel out quickly. Gemma shelved all the soap shop’s other orders, “for the foreseeable. This is the priority until we don’t need it anymore.”
With normal distillery operations suspended, Ailsa is one of the many distillery employees who are now offering their practical services to the island, through a local volunteers network. Local haulage business Mundells have also played their part in bringing in some ingredients without charge. “We’re doing this because the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed our vulnerability,” says Ailsa. “Any outbreak on Islay will put enormous pressure on our already limited resources and could seriously impact the island, as well as increase the chance of impacting one of our lifeline services should the ferry or airport close due to infection.” She is working closely with the island’s health professionals and the volunteer coordinators to make Islay hand sanitiser available to the most vulnerable first, and to find the best ways to distribute it where it is most needed.
We’ve also been in contact with more than 50 other distillers, and the other production sites owned by Remy Cointreau, who are all thinking of how they can help their immediate communities along similar lines. May they all have an Ailsa…