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Booze-makers Become Germ-busters to Help Stop COVID-19

Hand sanitizer
A sign announcing sanitizer production on a door at the Eight Oaks Farm Distillery in New Tripoli, Pennsylvania, on March 19, 2020. Eight Oaks is one of many distilleries in the U.S. producing hand sanitizer instead of spirits in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. BRANDEN EASTWOOD/AFP/Getty Images

COVID-19 has thrown the world into chaos; businesses have shuttered, state lines are closing and social distancing has quickly become the new normal. One aspect of this pandemic that will likely carry on after the end of the virus is the public's newfound — albeit mandated — appreciation for hygiene. Contributing to the fight against this unprecedented pandemic are distilleries and breweries, using their resources to donate water and to create and distribute hand sanitizer. For those wondering how companies producing spirits like vodka, whiskey and beer have been able to seamlessly switch to hygiene products, here's how it works.

The recipe for hand sanitizer is surprisingly easy; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests using "at least 60 percent alcohol," which can then be mixed with aloe vera. Distilleries across the nation are using ethanol — a natural byproduct of distillation — to produce top-shelf hand sanitizer.

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This unprecedented relaxation of certain formula approvals comes by way of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), who OK'd the production of ethanol-based hand sanitizers by permitted distillers.

Moonrise Distillery in Clayton, Georgia, was one of the first two distilleries in the country to retool their formula to produce hand sanitizer, using their own alcohol to benefit the public and try to slow the spread of the disease.

"We are using our high proof botanical gin," says Doug Nassaur, head distiller at Moonrise, in an email. "This is an infused tincture that uses local botanicals and in-house produced NGS [Natural Grain Spirits] from local ingredients to produce a high-proof, high-quality gin. We add natural aloe to the gin, which complements the botanicals to offer a virus killing, hand-friendly solution. All of our ingredients are locally sourced and we produce all of our alcohol in-house which eliminates issues with supply chains." As of March 30, 2020, Moonrise has distributed more than 3,000 bottles.

How Effective Is Hand Sanitizer?

While hand sanitizer doesn't work as well as soap and water to kill germs, alcohol destroys the "disease-causing agents, or pathogens, by breaking apart proteins, splitting cells into pieces or messing with a cell's metabolism," according to the National Institutes of Health. The sweet spot for potency is around 60 percent, though solutions with as little as 30 percent alcohol apparently have some pathogen-killing ability, with the effectiveness of alcohol topping out around 90-95 percent potency.

Old Fourth Distillery in Atlanta, Georgia, gave out so much hand sanitizer to the public that they recently decided to reallocate their supplies solely to first responders.

hand sani
Crew members apply labels to bottles for hand sanitizer at Eight Oaks Farm Distillery in New Tripoli, Pennsylvania, on March 19, 2020.
BRANDEN EASTWOOD/AFP/Getty Images

"Hospitals and the fire and the police and the sheriff's department," said co-owner of Old Fourth Distillery Jeff Moore in an interview with CBS. "The last thing we wanted to do is tell people that we were stopping ... giving out hand sanitizer ... but it's just the right thing to do."

Breweries are getting in on the action, too. Detroit's Atwater Brewery is now concocting and distributing a topical antiseptic sanitizer for health care providers and first responders.

"We are supplying local hospitals and first responders and now selling to the public," says owner Mark Rieth, in an email. "We use our alcohol and add in glycerol — an odorless, viscous, nontoxic liquid with antimicrobial and antiviral properties — and hydrogen peroxide per Food and Drug Administration guidelines." So far, Atwater has made over 2,500 gallons [9,464 liters] of hand sanitizer and plans to fill 40,000 bottles in the first week of April.

Savage & Cooke distillery on Mare Island off the coast of San Francisco shut down whiskey production to focus on the production of hand sanitizer, vowing to donate 35,000 gallons (133,000 liters) of WHO-approved hand sanitizer to local communities and surrounding cities.

“I am very proud of my staff at Savage & Cooke who sprung into action immediately and converted our operations from distilling whiskey to producing as much WHO approved hand sanitizer as possible. We have completely suspended all distillery activities and are 100 percent committed to helping our community avoid infection. We are doing this at scale – tens of thousands of gallons to have the most impact,” owner Dave Phinney told Fox News.

And if it isn't hand sanitizer, it's water. Beer giant Molson Coors handed out 50,000 cans of water to Denver's Salvation Army, distributing to the homeless and those in shelters without access to clean drinking water, according to 9News in Denver, Colorado.

While COVID-19 may be the biggest threat we, as a people, have faced in recent history, the level of care and solidarity from individuals and businesses is nothing short of inspiring. But remember that hand sanitizer — as helpful as it may be — is not as effective as always washing your hands carefully with soap and water.

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