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Wisconsin Distillers Step Up To Meet The Need For Hand Sanitizer

Distillers Often Offering Product For Free To The Public, Frontline Workers

Workers at the La Crosse Distilling Co. work to package hand sanitizer.
Workers at the La Crosse Distilling Co. work to package hand sanitizer. Photo courtesy of La Crosse Distilling Co.

Hand sanitizer was one of the first items to disappear from store shelves in the COVID-19 pandemic, and now many Wisconsin craft distillers are working to fill the void for people, health care facilities, first responders, governments and private businesses in need.

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Wisconsin Distillers Guild President Brian Sammons estimates 75 percent of the state’s 30 distillers have dedicated at least a part of their production lines that normally make small batch bourbon, gin or vodka to making hand sanitizer.

Sammons said that mirrors the percentage of distillers nationwide that have converted part of their operation to making hand sanitizer.

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They are also giving the hand sanitizer away for free at a time when their businesses have been hurt by stay-at-home orders that have shuddered tasting rooms and restaurants that are often a main source of revenue for the craft distilling industry.

A northwestern Wisconsin distillery, 45th Parallel Distillery in New Richmond, gave away its first batch of hand sanitizer Monday.

People brought their own containers and waited in their vehicle for as long as an hour to get them filled in a curbside pick-up. The line was a mile long at one point, said Paul Werni, 45th Parallel Distillery president.

About 600 people and businesses were able to receive 260 gallons of hand sanitizer for free.

There is a need, and we can perform the task,” said Werni

“We are utilizing one of our stills for the production of alcohol for the blend,” Weni said. “About 75 percent of our staff is working on the sanitizer operation. A lot of what we are doing now is developing a database to respond to the request and allocate the next batch to essential businesses, health care providers and first responders in an orderly fashion.”

Werni said 45th Parallel Distillery is committed to keep making the hand sanitizer as long as it can stay open and afford to make it.

We are currently not charging for the sanitizer,” he said. “We are asking for donations to help cover the cost of production. So far, the donations are keeping pace with the cost. Interest is overwhelming from institutions. Hundreds of emails and calls from nuclear facilities to momandpop organizations.

According to the company’s website, the next batch of hand sanitizer it makes will be available to first responders and essential businesses.

The rush to meet the need for hand sanitizer is a great example of how plans have been changing rapidly in response to the pandemic.

Late last week, La Crosse Distilling Co. put out a plan to get 5,000 2ounce bottles of hand sanitizer into the hands of people who wanted it, but since then the company has reassessed its plan based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The initial focus has since shifted to getting the product to people who have compromised immune systems and have requested it, and to people who must be out in public, such as first responders, firefighters, law enforcement and people who deliver meals to the elderly.

La Crosse Distilling is also planning to provide larger containers of hand sanitizer to places like assisted-living centers and homeless shelters.

There are still plans to provide hand sanitizer to the general public as soon as possible, as people’s needs are changing and the supply of hand sanitizer is still under pressure.

While the public effort has been largely regional so far, a company official said they are also working with state of Wisconsin to provide quantities of hand sanitizer where it’s needed.

Sammons, the Wisconsin Distillers Guild president, is also the distiller at Twisted Path Distillery in Milwaukee.

He saw the need to make hand sanitizer back in January when it looked like the virus was heading for a global pandemic and ordered extra supplies to be ready.

Sammons has been in touch with the Wisconsin Department of Corrections about providing hand sanitizer for prisons.

He said it’s hard to predict how long distillers will produce hand sanitizer before traditional manufacturers are caught up and supplying the product to retailers and businesses such as health care facilities.

Ingredients to make hand sanitizer like hydrogen peroxide and glycerin are also in short supply, said Sammons, who adds the type of alcohol needed to make hand sanitizer is a much lower grade than alcohol distillers normally aim for while distilling small-batch spirits.

There is also a question of how long small distillers across the country can remain economically viable making a product they haven’t traditionally produced while a main source of income they’ve relied on, tasting rooms, are closed due to stay-at-home orders.