Getting In The Spirit
Distilleries Turn Efforts Toward Producing Hand Sanitizer
Industries across the country are making a shift in production to help contain the outbreak of COVID-19.
That includes those charged with producing spirits, as distilleries all over the United States have begun the process of producing hand sanitizer — including Westfield’s Five & 20 Spirits & Brewing as well as Southern Tier Distilling Company in Lakewood.
“I’m not sure who the first distilleries were who identified the way to do so, but we saw a couple of people early on in some markets doing this,” said Mario Mazza, vice president and general manager of Robert Mazza Inc., which operates the Westfield distillery.
“We read somewhere about using vodka to make it, which turned the lightbulb on, so to speak,” said Nathan Arnone, brand manager for Southern Tier Distilling Company. “Then the next day Matt Dunn at the brewery half-jokingly suggested we start making hand sanitizer.
Then (founder) Phin DeMink and I talked about it and Ross Seeley and Patrick Neidig at the distillery began work on it shortly after that.”
“Thankfully we had already prepared our inventory for the spring/summer season, so this has not impacted our regular production,” Arnone added, noting that Southern Tier was also buoyed by a bottle filling system designed by Seeley.
Meanwhile, distillery and trade groups lobbied to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, the federal agency charged with regulating and collecting taxes on trade and imports of alcohol, to relax regulation so that relevant industries could begin addressing the shortage of hand sanitizer.
“We make one of the key components — the ethanol — but the process of blending the other ingredients in requires U.S. Food and Drug Administration licensing,” Mazza said. ” It took them a little while, but the government was still pretty quick about issuing guidance saying, ‘Okay, here’s what you’re allowed to do. You don’t have to go out and get these extra permits and all the paper work as long as you adhere to this (World Health Organization) formulation and as long as you follow all of these guidelines, you will be compliant.'”
“We work in a highly regulated environment,” he added. “You always want to be careful and the intentions are good, but you want to do it without inflicting additional difficulties on a business that is already getting hurt.”
With the WHO formulation as a guide, Mazza and Southern Tier got to work.
“Essentially, we prepare a very high alcohol by volume neutral spirit, then blend it down with distilled water and hydrogen peroxide,” Arnone said, especially warning customers not to drink the sanitizer. “We’re using the FDA-approved and the World Health Organization method to make alcohol antiseptic 80% non-sterile solution. So it’s very high in alcohol content and made to disinfect hands, but it is definitely not potable.”
“It’s not switching from making cars to ventilators, so it’s not that drastic of a change,” said Mazza, also warning against homemade solutions. “What we’re doing is we have to acquire a couple of additional ingredients: peroxide and glycerin to blend into the ethanol. We’re already equipped to work with high proof, flammable material. There are safety considerations, but we’re already equipped to do that so that’s why there is also a recommendation that distilleries work to do this rather than people try to formulate at home.”
Not just distilleries are helping to address the nationwide shortage in hand sanitizer: compounding pharmacies are doing so as well. Pharmacy Innovations, which is headquartered in Jamestown and has stores in six states, began their process of adding to the supply chain of hand sanitizer in mid-February.
“It’s been something a long time in the making and something we’ve been doing for a little bit,” Richard Moon, president of Pharmacy Innovations, said, noting that pharmacies were given permission to begin producing sanitizer a week prior to distilleries. “We got approval from the FDA on a Friday and by Saturday we were making sanitizer. We had been preparing because we knew it was going to happen.”
Moon also noted that the greatest challenge in shifting production has been obtaining the materials needed.
“There’s a nationwide shortage of alcohol and bottles, so it took us some time to get ahold of alcohol to make one of the ingredients in the base,” Moon said. “The first lot of bottles that we purchased, we had to get them from three different sources because an order of 15,000 bottles isn’t standard anymore for a lot of the places that we deal with because we’re not a manufacturer. We don’t order things by bottles or by the warehouse full. Then, bottles or bottle caps, closures, whether it’s a spray closure or squirt closure, it’s been a challenge. Every compounding pharmacy in the country wants to make that stuff, so there’s a great demand.”
Mazza also noted that packaging was one of the largest issues.
“Typically, we’re packaging in glass bottles for spirits on a shelf — very different from your dispensing cap-type hand sanitizer or expectation,” he said. “That supply chain is one that we were not as versed in. Even though they’re bottles, it’s a whole different supplier set. We had to very quickly reach out to suppliers we knew and friends of colleagues and get into that supply chain. That supply chain is stressed.”
The solution resulted in Five & 20 producing sanitizer in larger quantities.
“A lot of these facilities that maybe need it have the bottles, they just need to put something in it,” he said. “We’re packaging a lot of our product into one gallon, five-gallon and we even have some facilities that are buying 55-gallon drums of hand sanitizer so that we can get material out there. We jumped into that area first, but we are doing some smaller bottles that are basically one free per customer if they come to do a curbside pickup.”
And while Mazza, Arnone and Moon noted that the commercial response has paid dividends, their first priority in distribution remains to be those in the health care industry.
“Of course our priority is the health care and first responder type of needs, but we’re fortunate we’re in a position now that we have our feet under us enough to ramp up production so that we can also provide for those who are looking to purchase it and beyond,” Mazza said.
“We’ll help anybody who needs help, but somehow we got into a track with the hospital systems in Pennsylvania mostly,” Moon said. “They’ve been referred to us. There’s an awful lot of community going on and as you can guess, not just our customer base, but our referral base with some of the offices we do business with, it was natural for them to call us to help them with product if they could get it. Then, it filters through to family and friends and again anybody else who also needs it.”
“We’re grateful to have the ability to do something to help keep our fellow western New Yorkers and northwestern Pennsylvanians, a bit safer when they can’t wash their hands with soap and water,” Arnone said. “First responders and healthcare workers remain a top priority for us. Many of our beer and spirits wholesalers are using the sanitizer to keep their employees safe, too. And of course we’re making it available in our Empty Bottle tasting room at the distillery.”
“It really is a full team effort and everybody has kind of jumped in, shed any pride about what they think their role and what they should or shouldn’t be doing and whatever we need to do, we’re doing it,” Mazza added, praising his staff.
“When I was in Erie last week and we were making a bunch of bottles, I was telling them, and they understand, that they’re helping 10,000 people with the work that they’re doing,” Moon said. “Don’t look at it as work, look at it as how many people you’re helping and they’ve done a really good job and moving forward and understanding that everybody needs this stuff.”