By the time you’re reading this, the Pennsylvania Distillers Guild will have produced some 2.4 million 4-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer, predicts Rob Cassell.
And if that’s not impressive enough, consider all the partnerships he’s forged and red tape he’s cut through since March.
“To me, I feel like what you’re seeing happen between public-private partnerships and businesses converting to creative solutions is like what our grandparents talked about happening during World War II,” said Cassell, guild president and master distiller at North Philadelphia’s New Liberty Distillery.
By early-to-mid March, hand sanitizer was in short supply. That’s when many of the guild’s 140 distilleries shifted production of their typical alcoholic spirits—whiskey, vodka, rum or gin—to alcohol-based germ-fighting mixtures. The basic recipe for hand sanitizer calls for high-proof alcohol (ethanol), hydrogen peroxide and glycerin, following guidelines issued in a federal authorization by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Cassel reached out to the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, which, within 48 hours, granted a temporary code allowing distilleries to produce hand sanitizer during this time of crisis.
Next, Cassell tapped into state funding to underwrite the costs of materials and machinery allowing distilleries to be sanitizer savvy. He credits Philadelphia-area senators Vincent Hughes and Tom Killion, along with the city’s economic development corporation, PIDC, which all connected the dots to state Department of Community and Economic Development funding.
Thanks to the guild’s pre-coronavirus networking and camaraderie, Cassell knew exactly who could concoct FDA-compliant hand sanitizer formulas: his fellow distillers at Pittsburgh’s Boyd & Blair and Philadelphia area’s Five Saints Distilling—both are former pharmacists.
Next, he reached out to the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association to locate a source for small plastic bottles.
“In a crazy twist of fate, they put me in touch with a plastic manufacturer in Boyertown—my hometown,” Cassell said. “I spoke to them on a Sunday morning and, by Tuesday, I had 66,000 bottles on site.”
Logistics and supply chain issues were the next issues to tackle.
“We’ve been able to centralize purchasing to get access to raw materials—suppliers would rather deal with one big customer,” Cassell said. “Then we created a multi-phase plan for production throughout the entire state, with key facilities in Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh.”
Blending is centralized in those three key cities, distributed to outlying distillers for bottling and then delivered into the hands of those who need the precious commodity.
The end result is a cost-effective, quality product. Hand sanitizer, in 4-ounce bottles, is sold to the state Department of Health at a nonprofit price and distributed to police departments, hospitals, postal workers and others, at the rate of 300,000 to 400,000 bottles weekly.
“In an age where people are price-gouging, it feels good to provide something of civic duty,” Cassell said. “You can only do that with the camaraderie of a trusted network.”
Keep in mind—all of these wheels were set into motion within two or three weeks. But the groundwork and network is something Cassell built from the ground up, beginning in 2005. That’s when he launched New Liberty, the state’s first craft distillery, and began lobbying the state legislature to create a distillery license—which came to fruition and is currently in use.
As the state’s distilleries grew, Cassell formed the nonprofit guild, which is now 140 distilleries strong. Dan Healy of Harrisburg’s Midstate Distillery is a member.
“In this case, for the sanitizer, we’re all on the same team trying to fill the need in our communities in this very unprecedented time,” he said. “There’s nothing but effort to help each other and move forward as group. So, I’m interested to see how this affects us as an industry, to further solidify us as a guild.”
Midstate’s hand sanitizer is in good hands—Healy is distributing it to first responders, including the Harrisburg police and fire bureaus, health care workers and area senior homes. He’s bottling it in bulk-size, 1-gallon bottles.
Like many of the state’s distillers, Healy is trying to do the right thing by producing hand sanitizer, while trying to stay afloat through curbside liquor sales after 600 state stores shut down.
Pennsylvania distilleries are able to ship directly to in-state customers—that’s how Yianni Barakos, co-owner of Gettysburg’s Mason Dixon Distillery, is putting bottles into customers’ hands while he too focuses on hand sanitizer.
“It’s been a constant emotional rollercoaster, fielding dozens of messages and requests from people, hearing their stories—I’m welling up right now,” said Barakos. “But I’m trying to put it [sanitizer] where I think it’s going to do the most amount of good.”
Barakos is selling sanitizer to a regional health care system, not to make a profit, but to cover wages.
“Once this virus slows down, I highly doubt it’s going to be business as usual, but I’ll do everything I can to get my staff back and working,” he said. “We’ll be reliant on people coming back out and supporting us.”
In addition to learning a new recipe for a new product, the state’s distilleries are distilling some additional wisdom.
“The critical shortage of hand sanitizer—the level of need was shocking to me,” said Chad Butters of the Lehigh Valley’s Eight Oaks Farm Distillery, one of the first in the state to begin mixing sanitizer back in mid-March. Midstaters may be familiar with the name because Eight Oaks operates a stand in Harrisburg’s Broad Street Market.
Eight Oaks has received nearly $100,000 in community donations, underwriting 27,000 8-ounce bottles of sanitizer given to community organizations and first responders. Aside from the philanthropic efforts, Eight Oaks is also selling bottles by the case to sustain employees and costs.
“Certainly after-action needs to be done on the back end of all this—how did this happen?” Butters said. “There are manufacturing lessons to be learned from all of this, and the American worker and manufacturers are going to be way more valued.”
Rob Cassell encourages anyone from the service industry who is out of work and interested in a job bottling hand sanitizer to email him at info@ padistillersguild.com. For more information, see padistillersguild.com, newlibertydistillery.com, midstatedistillery.com, masondixondistillery.com and eightoaksdistillery.com.