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Chicago Distillers Build a Vigilante Hand Sanitizer Industry

As COVID-19 continues its deadly sweep across the U.S., purveyors are prepared to manufacture the product long-term.

Growlers filled with Koval hand sanitizer   Photo: Courtesy of Koval

When Eric Falberg opened 28 Mile Vodka in the northern suburb of Highwood last June, he never imagined that less than a year later he’d be using his spirits to make something people can’t even drink: hand sanitizer.

But with the vital product selling out as soon as it hits store shelves and being price-gouged online, Falberg realized he was sitting on an essential need.

“The hardest thing to get right now is exactly what we have in abundance: high-proof alcohol,” Falberg says.

Both the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) say hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol are more effective at killing germs, and the FDA has now mandated it for all manufacturers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Falberg says his sanitizer mixes hydrogen peroxide with glycerol and 28 Mile gin because “it smells so good — like juniper berries.”

The same sense of social responsibility that Falberg felt also struck the owners of other Chicago distilleries, including Koval, CH Distillery, North Shore Distillery, and Rhine Hall. All five distilleries are now producing hand sanitizer onsite, and each has pledged to donate a significant portion of their output to healthcare providers and public service workers, like local police and fire departments, medical centers, nursing homes, and homeless shelters. And it’s not just happening here: Nationwide, the American Craft Spirits Association says 75 percent of its distillery members are now making hand sanitizer.

For Koval founder and president Dr. Sonat Birnecker Hart, her contribution is personal: Her sister in New York has been diagnosed with COVID-19.

“We really see this as part of a war effort,” Hart says. “While it’s not raining down bombs, coronavirus is doing something insidious to our families, our healthcare system, our small-business economy. We need to do whatever we can to come together to help everybody.”

In early March, Koval, 28 Mile, and Rhine Hall first toyed with the idea of manufacturing small batches of sanitizer and giving it away for free to the hundreds of people calling, emailing, and showing up at their doors. However, they couldn’t legally produce it — distilled spirit sales are strictly regulated, and they feared losing their business licenses.

But on March 18, the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) issued an emergency guidance waiving permit requirements and allowing distilleries to “immediately” start producing hand sanitizer through June 30, tax-free.

Koval founder and president Sonat Birnecker Hart poses with a jug from an early batch of the distillery’s hand sanitizer. Photo: Courtesy of Koval

Just as bars and restaurants have improvised around the statewide dining ban, with the possibility of a shutdown extending into months, not weeks, distilleries are planning to pivot to hand sanitizer production for the long haul. Even Chicago breweries are chipping in: In addition to using its whiskey as an alcohol base, Koval has received beer for distillation from Great Central Brewing Company, Metropolitan Brewing, Temperance Beer Company, and Urban Renewal. Meanwhile, other companies in affected industries — like the tourism brand Choose Chicago and medical courier Medspeed — are volunteering delivery services.

“People are saying they’re bored under quarantine. But it’s 100 percent opposite for business owners,” says Rhine Hall Distillery owner Jennifer Solberg Katzman. “It’s been a constant state of panic the last week. It’s shocking to go from a thriving business to almost zero.”

Rhine Hall had to lay off its hourly workers but has managed to keep its full-time staff of three by offering virtual cocktail classes and curbside pickup for bottles. She hopes to bring back all her employees once Rhine Hall’s hand sanitizer production is in full swing.

“It’s the best way to help us keep our lights on right now,” Katzman says.

As for 28 Mile, Falberg says he’s ramping up the distillery into a “24–7” operation. He plans to rehire all 14 of his staff and “turn bartenders into factory workers, distilling and labeling” to keep up with demand. Right now, he says “emergency” delivery of premade cocktails is largely keeping 28 Mile in business.

“We’re like an ambulance, coming to rescue people going stir-crazy at home,” he jokes.

Though distilleries have eagerly tackled the challenge of sanitizer production, the change has come with unforeseen stumbling blocks. Last week, Koval set up a GoFundMe to cover new packaging and supply costs.

“The cost and labor for distilling spirits and sanitizer is about the same, but sourcing raw materials like bottles still costs us,” Hart explains. “Bottle supplies are scarce, so we have sourced, and continue to source, whatever we can find that meets FDA approval as containers for alcohol.”

CH’s “Malört” hand sanitizer, actually made from a high-proof neutral base spirit. CH purchased the production rights to Jeppsen’s Malört in 2018.
Photo: Courtesy of CH Distillery

CH Distillery owner Tremaine Atkinson echoes Hart, citing the FDA’s detailed emergency guidance on bottle labeling as a special challenge. “They want specific labeling requirements. We will certainly comply, but it’s slowed down our production.”

In order to fit all the required drug facts on the label, CH Distillery must forego using travel size bottles. Even so, Atkinson says CH Distillery will complete its first 500 liter batch of sanitizer by the end of this week, enough to donate to some of the hundreds of nonprofit organizations that have reached out.

While the public service and nonprofit sectors remain the priority for sanitizer donations, some distilleries may sell their product commercially in the near future. According to Falberg, major retailers like Whole Foods and Ace Hardware have approached 28 Mile with offers to purchase their sanitizer.

“They told us, ‘You’re a business, and we want you to stay in business,’” Falberg says. “As a small business owner, I really appreciated that.”

Hart says that Koval also plans to sell to those working through the crisis, like cleaning and construction companies. She emphasizes the importance of essential workers having access to sanitizer and implores shoppers to think twice before hoarding sanitizers at home, where they can already wash their hands with soap and water.

“Police officers don’t have that ability right after interacting with someone,” she says, her voice cracking with emotion. “The fact that retirement homes, which are at the most risk, are reaching out to us for sanitizer — it’s very disconcerting.”

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