Coronavirus supplies: Bay Area distilleries switch gears to produce much-needed hand sanitizer

ByJuan Carlos Guerrero KGO logo
Thursday, April 9, 2020
Coronavirus: Distilleries turn from whiskey to hand sanitizer
Distilleries in the San Francisco Bay Area have stopped producing whiskey, rum and other spirits to make hand sanitizer to protect first responders from COVID-19.

SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- It is not business as usual at 10th Street Distillery in San Jose.

The spirit producer has shifted gears in the past few weeks from making its award-winning single malt whiskeys to produce something that is not as glamorous - hand sanitizer.

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"We have four whiskeys out there and all the them have won gold, if not more. And we stopped making that whiskey so that we can make hand sanitizer," said Virag Saksena with a slight chuckle as he stood near barrels of his whiskey. Saksena is co-owner of 10th Street Distillery, which he opened with his partner in 2017.

Saksena said he was not aware of the dire need for hand sanitizer until there started to be restrictions on gatherings in Santa Clara County and he went to buy sanitizer and could not find any. That gave him an idea.

"We happen to have a lot of high proof alcohol to make hand sanitizer," said Saksena. He originally thought of making it for family and friends, but then decided to make it available to people on the front lines fighting the coronavirus. That's when he reached out to San Jose councilmember Raul Peralez.

"One of the things that we have been lacking has been hand sanitizer," said Peralez, who represents the downtown area. "It is going directly to first responders that are just burning through sanitizer, like firefighters, police officers or other essential service workers."

10th Street Distillery is putting the hand sanitizer in 50 gallon drums. The city is putting a pump on the giant plastic barrels and letting essential workers fill up their individual bottles.

So far, the distillery has provided more than 500 gallons to San Jose. It is also providing sanitizer to hospitals. San Jose State donated alcohol and hydrogen peroxide to help make the sanitizer.

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"We never thought we would be making hand sanitizer," said Saksena. "But when the need came in, we looked at what we could do to help. And there are people who are putting their lives at risk every day and if we can support that, it helps."

Making sanitizer has kept other distilleries busy as well.

In Livermore, Sutherland Distilling Company had to close its tasting room and was figuring out how it would pay its employees.

Sutherland makes whiskeys, bourbons and other spirits by sourcing local ingredients near Mount Diablo.

Eric Larimer is one of the co-owners. He was a paramedic and one of his partners owns NORCAL Ambulance.

"We know the need and the danger of not having the proper personal equipment handy to be able to protect yourself," said Larimer at the distillery in Livermore. "We started running into supply problems at NORCAL Ambulance getting hand sanitizer."

When the Federal Drug Administration published guidelines for distilleries to make sanitizer, Sutherland jumped at the opportunity.

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"We have taken our bulk bourbon that we intended to make into barrel-aged bourbon, we've taken some gin, some brandy and used that to convert it into hand sanitizer. Each batch we produce has a little different flavor to it," said Larimer.

They also got a donation of 3,500 gallons of wine from LangeTwins Family Winery in Lodi. The wine will be distilled into 350 gallons of sanitizer.

NORCAL Ambulance provides the containers which allow Sutherland Distillery to distribute sanitizer to East Bay hospitals, law enforcement agencies and nursing homes.

Distilleries aren't the only spirit makers producing hand sanitizer. Wineries and breweries that typically produce drinks with less than 15% alcohol aren't equipped to distill high proof alcohol, but a wine spirits maker in San Francisco is.

Endless West makes alcoholic beverages without the use of grapes or fermentation.

"What we do is we scan the molecular profile of wine spirits and then we source each of those molecules independently from plants and other places in nature, and we combine them in a much faster and sustainable way," said Alec Lee, CEO of Endless West.

To make their spirits, Endless West has a lot of pure alcohol in stock.

"We bring in a lot of neutral alcohol. That is sort of our blank canvas if you will," said Lee.

Endless West is using that alcohol to make hand sanitizer for first responders. The company has donated more than 1,000 gallons so far, including more than 150 jugs to the San Francisco mayor's office.

Right now, the company is paying for all the source materials, but recently set up a GoFundMe to raise money to purchase more ingredients and packaging. The goal is to make hand sanitizer for more organizations.

"It feels good to be able to contribute," said Lee. "This is a time of great need and it makes us feel really good to be able to do something that contributes to that public health effort."

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