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Local distilleries step up to create…hand sanitizer?

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One fo the first batches of hand sanitizer made by Easy Speak Spirits | Photo c/o Easy Speak

By Scott Pruden

As panic buying in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has left stores around the nation short of cleaning and hygiene supplies, craft distilleries have turned their inventory to a new purpose beyond booze: making hand sanitizer.

Ethanol, the drinkable alcohol that forms the basis of distilled spirits, is in ready supply for these businesses, and their small agile nature makes it easy for them to turn production from whiskey and gin to an in-demand and necessary hygiene product.

Sam Calagione | Photo by Maria DeForest

In Delaware, at least two craft distilleries are using their supply of ethanol to make batches of hand sanitizer, and others are exploring it. Because of its strength as a disinfectant, distilleries’ waste ethanol can be used to clean bars, tabletops and other surfaces, but converting it to consumer-style hand sanitizer is a new approach prompted by the current pandemic.

On Friday, the state’s most famous brewery, Dogfish Head, announced that its distillery, which typically makes gins, vodkas and whiskeys, is partnering with the state to produce the much-needed sanitary agent for government use. Dogfish Head expects to provide bulk shipments to the state in coming weeks, selling it at market rate and donating all profits to a fund to support Delawareans affected by the coronavirus.

“I never thought Dogfish Head would be in the sanitizer business. But this is a time of crisis, and necessity is the mother of invention,” said Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head, in a statement announcing the effort. “It is our duty to do what we can to keep as many people safe and healthy in our community.”

Meanwhile, Marissa Cordell, owner of Easy Speak Spirits in Milford, said her business successfully made its first batch of hand sanitizer last week, and they intend to start producing it in bulk. The homebrew hand sanitizer will be bottled in either 125- or 250-milliliter bottles and given away at no cost with takeout food orders.

Cordell says she was inspired by a visit her father-in-law had to make to the hospital last week.

“We ran out [of hand sanitizer] and couldn’t find it anywhere, she said., noting they used the 190-proof ethanol to sanitize their hands instead.

Along with other restaurants and bars around the state, Easy Speak was forced March 1 to close sit-down dining service and offer only takeout and delivery service after an order by Gov. John Carney.

Offering the hard-to-find hand sanitizer for free is both a nod to public health and way to thank patrons for continuing to support small businesses, Cordell said.

“We hope people keep coming out, because we don’t know how long this will last,” she said. “As long as we have it, we’ll hand it out. And then we’ll make more.”

Greg Christmas, owner of Beach Time Distilling in Lewes, says he’s exploring the option of creating his own hand sanitizer, but wants to make sure he’s following the rules to do so. Part of the process includes denaturing the ethanol to make it unfit for human consumption.

50 ml bottle of sanitizer produced by Easy Speak Spirits | Photo c/o Easy Speak

“I have a bunch of 50-milliliter bottles that I’d love to fill up and have on hand, but I just have to sort out the legal piece,” he said. “I don’t know if we can pull it off in a few days or not. As far as making it, if I can, I will.”

At Painted Stave Distillery in Smyrna, owner Mike Rasmussen is exploring manufacturing their own hand sanitizer and sharing it with local emergency responders, who he says are also feeling the effects of the shortage.

“We use our waste alcohol for normal sterilization around the bar, but we haven’t offered anything to the public yet,” he says. “Our hope is that we can have a partnership with some of the first responders around here so they can have it and use it when they come into contact with people.”

Scott Pruden is the Editor of Delaware Today.

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