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Distilleries across the nation pivoting operations to make hand sanitizer

Posted at 1:34 PM, Apr 14, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-14 13:48:33-04

BOULDER, Colo. – At J&L Distilling Company in Boulder, Colorado, you'll find volunteers hard at work filling a couple hundred bottles per day with hand sanitizer.

“I’ve basically been living here. I’ve maybe been home two nights in the last two weeks,” said J&L Distilling Company owner Seth Johnson.

Johnson is not a volunteer. He’s the brains behind the operation. He’s the owner of J&L Distilling Company and he’s fully changed his business from one that makes vodka, gin, and liqueur into one that makes hand sanitizer – a resource in high demand at a time when the whole world is trying to stay virus free.

“I do have a stock of spirits that is dwindling quickly. But the need for hand sanitizer is so immediate and severe that I’ve basically switched over full-time to just making hand sanitizer,” Johnson said.

Johnson says distilleries have an upper hand because the industry is so chemically driven.

“My still has 35 distillation stages per pass, so I’m able to get a very pure alcohol, which is the stuff you’re supposed to be using for the hand sanitizer.”

Johnson was a physicist before getting into the alcohol business. So, the change has him putting his science background to use in a different way.

"My column is special in that it’s only six inches in diameter, but it’s 17-feet tall so I get a lot of distillations per pass,” Johnson said as he pointed to his distillation process.

He’s following strict guidelines to make the hand sanitizer – which he wouldn’t be able to effectively distribute without help of volunteers.

Anja Brannstrom started as a volunteer and has now become Johnson's administrative assistant. She handles sales and makes sure the hand sanitizer gets to the public.

“I can’t sit at home when there’s a need out there. What can I be doing? How can I help?” Brannstrom said.

Brannstrom says she was quick to join the cause because the wellness center she owns is currently closed. She was determined to continue helping people in some way. Little did she know how big the operation would become.

“We’ve gotten emails from people in California, in Boston, in far flung states, and unfortunately my answer to them is ‘we’re not allowed to ship it. Have you checked with your local distillers?’”

Since corporate clearance would have taken too long, SnoSan Hand Sanitizer can only be sold at local liquor stores and at the distillery's tasting room.

But other liquor producers all over the U.S. are making the same switch. According to Margie Lehrman, the CEO of American Craft Spirits Association, 75 percent of distilleries across the nation are producing hand sanitizer right now.

American Craft Spirits Association supports more than 2,100 distillers all over the country. Lehrman believes there are likely distilleries making hand sanitizer in every state.

“They are located throughout the United States, and because they have the necessary resources – which primarily is ethanol alcohol – to then begin making hand sanitizers, they’re in a position to distribute it locally," Lehrman said.

The Food and Drug Administration has set guidelines and recipes for distillers to follow. To make it easier, ACSA is offering webinars to educate producers about hand sanitizer transportation and regulations.

“All the distillers that I know, know the rules, know the guidelines and are following them strictly,” Johnson said.

Lehrman says nearly all distillers currently making hand sanitizer are donating their product to hospitals and first responders.

"Even though their bottom line has been hit pretty dramatically, they’re giving it as a gift,” Lehrman said.

“We’ve done a bunch of donations to groups doing outreach work with homeless, to hospice care, elder care, fire departments, post offices,” Brannstrom added.

Johnson's business has benefited from donors as well. He says one particular person saved him from going bankrupt at the beginning of it all.

“I had an anonymous donor come up and give me a $10,000 check and just said ‘use this to get it out there,’” Johnson said.

Johnson says he’s thankful he can continue doing what he loves while positively impacting the community around him.

“So I’m going to produce as much as I can, give away a bunch, and sell a bunch, and we’ll go from there,” Johnson said.