How a Distillery Is Supporting the Front Line of the COVID-19 Pandemic

November 17, 2020Mac Caltrider
Photo by Mac Caltrider/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Photo by Mac Caltrider/Coffee or Die Magazine.

The fog hangs low, a cool blanket pulled tight over the cornfields. Peaking through the haze, a tall, dark silhouette of a man holding binoculars becomes exposed with the sunrise. The bronze figure is Gen. John Buford, the famed cavalryman who heroically delayed the Confederate advance on Gettysburg. His likeness, more than 15 feet tall on its base, now sits atop Seminary Ridge on the edge of the small Pennsylvania town. One of the four guns surrounding his feet fired the opening shot of the famous battle. And it is here, among the cannons and statues, that Mason Dixon Distillery continues the town’s proud tradition of service. 

In March 2020, when Yianni Barakos, the owner of Mason Dixon Distillery, was first asked if his business could make hand sanitizer for local hospitals during the COVID-19 outbreak, he didn’t hesitate to answer the community’s call for help. He immediately set to converting the pot stills used for spirits to manufacture alcohol desperately needed for sanitation. 

At the time, COVID-19 was projected to cost millions of lives across the United States, and the five WellSpan hospitals surrounding Mason Dixon Distillery in Gettysburg found themselves desperately low on hand sanitizer. The distillery, housed in a refurbished, century-old factory, was able to produce 220 gallons of alcohol for sanitizer a week. By ceasing all production of spirits, working 20-hour days, and adding an additional still, Mason Dixon was able to increase its output to an impressive 500 gallons of alcohol a week. The distillery’s efforts to support WellSpan Health was not the first time citizens of Gettysburg came together when facing a deadly crisis. 

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Photo by Mac Caltrider for Coffee or Die Magazine.

One hundred and fifty-three years — to the day — before Mason Dixon Distillery opened its doors on East Water Street, the citizens of Gettysburg began weathering the bloodiest three days in American history. The pivotal battle that changed the tide of the American Civil War was waged around a town of only 2,400 people. The clash of Union and Confederate armies resulted in more than 50,000 casualties — and created an insurmountable demand for medical aid, well beyond the capabilities of either army’s medical personnel. Many of Gettysburg’s citizens stepped forward, and among those civilians who answered the call was the now-famous 21-year-old schoolteacher Salome “Sallie” Myers. 

When the tidal wave of wounded soldiers washed into town, Myers was living on West High Street, less than 1 mile from where Mason Dixon Distillery now sits. She converted her home into a makeshift hospital. Her church, St. Francis Xavier, also became a hospital ward, as did most of the town’s residences and buildings. Myers spent the duration of the three-day battle tending to the dead and dying who saturated the town. 

After Maj. Gen. George Pickett’s failed assault on Cemetery Ridge, the Confederates fled south, back over the Mason-Dixon Line, and the Union Army pursued. This abrupt vacating of the town left behind 21,000 wounded soldiers from both sides to be cared for by Gettysburg’s citizens, as well as the responsibility of burying or burning over 7,000 bodies and 5,000 horses. It took Myers, and the rest of Gettysburg’s volunteers, several weeks to accomplish the task.

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Cannons on the battlefield at Gettysburg. Photo by Mac Caltrider for Coffee or Die Magazine.

Following the war, Myers gave birth to a son, Henry Stewart, who followed in his mother’s caregiving footsteps. Stewart became a renowned doctor, surgeon, and pioneer in X-ray technology. He also went on to be one of the founding members of Warner Hospital. Warner Hospital has since been renamed WellSpan Gettysburg Hospital — the same facility that, in 2020, found itself in desperate need of hand sanitizer. 

The staff of Mason Dixon Distillery are pretty self-effacing when asked about their impressive overhaul made in support of WellSpan. 

“It was a no-brainer for us,” Barakos said. “The front-line workers of our community needed some support, and we were lucky enough to be able to give them that.”

The former factory sports high ceilings of exposed wood and proudly displays flags for each branch of America’s armed forces. Directly behind the bar is a wall covered in patches brought in by grateful customers. A long list of police and fire departments are represented alongside various military units. When asked why he chose to fill the walls of his distillery with patches instead of promotional products, Barakos simply explained he wanted to be sure those who serve know their sacrifices are appreciated by the staff and the community. He shrugs off any attempt to compare his company’s service to local hospitals to the service represented by the patches on display. 

gettysburg, distillery, mason dixon, hand sanitizer, history, first responder, community
Patches on display at Mason Dixon Distillery. Photo by Mac Caltrider for Coffee or Die Magazine.

Despite the collective humility of Mason Dixon’s staff, their pride is undeniable when it comes to the spirits. Their quality whiskey, rye, vodka, ouzo, gin, and rum are all made with the precision of a painter. To Barakos, these drinks are his art, and the attention to detail shows. He has a family history of distilling spirits. In fact, it was his grandfather who provided him the sketches for his first still — a still he built at age 8 in the garage, nearly burning the family’s house to the ground. 

Barakos is a little more careful these days and personally samples each batch to determine when it is ready for bottling. If he believes a little more aging will improve the taste, the barrel gets shelved, even if buyers are ready to spend. Mason Dixon’s reputation is rapidly expanding in the world of whiskey sommeliers. Connoisseurs of fine spirits travel from all over the country to taste what is now being distilled on the grounds of America’s most famous battlefield. 

In an unwavering focus on supporting the community that in turn supports them, Mason Dixon sources its ingredients from local farmers. The closer to the distillery and to the battlefield, the better. All ingredients (aside from the molasses needed for rum) come from southern Pennsylvania, with malt being the only ingredient sourced from beyond Adams County. Nearly all of the grains used for whiskey and rye come from 47 acres of farmland on the Gettysburg battlefield. The battlefield is a national park, so acquiring the rights to use crops grown within its borders is difficult. 

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Photo by Mac Caltrider for Coffee or Die Magazine.

Currently, the distillery is working with the Gettysburg Foundation in an effort to create a whiskey made solely from ingredients grown on the battlefield. Taking souvenirs from the park is strictly prohibited, not just artifacts like bullets and belt buckles, but even dirt or small rocks. Barakos’ hope is that by distilling a drink sourced entirely from Gettysburg’s hallowed ground, he can provide consumers a way to take a piece of history home with them without detracting from the park’s historical integrity. 

Gettysburg typically draws 1 million visitors from around the world annually. Barakos is unsure how COVID-19 will impact tourism or the future of his company, but he is optimistic. When restaurants were allowed to reopen with the stipulation that they meet certain space requirements, Mason Dixon adapted, converting its grounds to accommodate more outdoor seating. Upon hearing of the new capacity guidelines, Barakos set to building picnic tables and filled the bed of his truck with every outdoor heater he could find. He knew the community would be eager to leave the confines of their houses and have a dining experience that resembled normalcy. 

The service industry is changing daily as the nation continues to navigate COVID-19, and Mason Dixon Distillery is simply grateful to be able to serve quality spirits to locals and tourists alike. Despite the uncertainty of what the future holds, Barakos is confident that so long as Gettysburg’s tight-knit community continues its tradition of rising to meet challenges together, the distillery will be just fine, and delicious whiskeys and rums will continue to flow from the battlefield.

Mac Caltrider
Mac Caltrider

Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.

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