Dan Healy is anxiously awaiting a shipment of hydrogen peroxide. It was due to arrive at Harrisburg’s Midstate Distillery sometime today.
You read that right. Hydrogen peroxide isn’t something the head distiller and co-owner normally orders. But then again, he’s normally producing whiskey, vodka, rum or gin. For about a week, he’s switched to production of hand sanitizer instead.
“Unfortunately the supply chain is getting taxed right now,” Healy said via phone Thursday afternoon. “I’ve also placed orders for more ethanol—close to a thousand gallons.”
The basic recipe for hand sanitizer calls for high-proof alcohol (ethanol), hydrogen peroxide and glycerin, following the World Health Organization’s guidelines. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the germ-fighting mixture is in short supply.
“It’s a blending process, calculating ratios and volumes, checking for purity standards—the process is basically what we do every day, but with slightly different chemicals,” Healy said.
On Wednesday, he bottled 34 gallons of hand sanitizer, each in a bulk-size, one-gallon bottle. He was hoping to bottle another 34 gallons today, then ramp up to several hundred gallons daily. At that point, volunteers will come in to assist his staff which includes three full time and several part time employees.
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, area senior homes, and an ever-growing list of those who call and put in requests.
“The need is way outweighing our supply,” said Healy.
He estimates that at least 50 of Pennsylvania’s 100 distilleries are currently producing hand sanitizer to supply their communities to potentially protect them from COVID-19.
One of the first distilleries in the state to begin bottling hand sanitizer was Eight Oaks Farm Distillery, located in New Tripoli, in the Lehigh Valley. Midstaters may be familiar with the name because Eight Oaks operates a stand in Harrisburg’s Broad Street Market.
“I saw the price of hand sanitizer was being jacked up, and I thought it was ridiculous,” said Chad Butters, Eight Oaks’ founder.
That was about two weeks ago.
“We made the decision to shut down distillery operations on Sunday [March 15], and we had our first small batch Monday,” he said. “Also by Monday, it was very clear this was a significant crisis we were facing as a country.”
By the end of the week, the craft distillery produced 1,000 bottles, each filled with eight ounces of sanitizer.
“Now, we’re scaling up,” said Butters.
Yesterday’s grand total was 2,000 bottles—and he was predicting a batch of 8,000 bottles today. If that sounds like a lot, wait till you hear where he’s headed.
“Next week we’re aiming for 10,000 bottles a day—conservatively, and 40,000 bottles per day the week after that, then scaling up to 50,000 per day after that,” Butters said.
Three of Eight Oaks’ 25 employees are working full time to keep up with hand sanitizer orders. The precious liquid is being distributed to emergency management personnel in four counties, cancer centers including those treating pediatric patients, homeless shelters, Second Harvest Food Bank and other nonprofits.
They’re limiting points of contact by having individual representatives pick up the hand sanitizer from Eight Oaks’ facility.
Donations in all dollar amounts, to help offset costs, are being accepted on Eight Oaks’ website.
As of Wednesday, Lehigh County residents were included in Gov. Tom Wolf’s stay-at-home order.
“This is absolutely mission-critical stuff,” Butters said. “This is no different than a nurse or doctor suiting up and protecting the community—we have a job to do too and it’s the right thing to do.”
Yianni Barakos, co-owner of Gettysburg’s Mason Dixon Distillery echoes those thoughts. He likened the movement to the past: During World War II, distilleries produced alcohol for the war effort.
“All of a sudden, we’re part of something bigger than ever before,” said Barakos.
He just finished his first week of hand sanitizer production, equaling just over 200 gallons.
“We are selling it to a single source—a health care system,” said Barakos. “We’re not making much if any money—but by charging we’re helping our staff.”
He declined to identify the health care system but said it was regional. He’s been overrun with requests for 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 where I think it’s going to do the most amount of good.”
While the state liquor stores are shut down, distilleries are still allowed to sell their products. Currently, Eight Oaks is not selling their spirits; Mason Dixon is shipping products via UPS; and Midstate Distillery is taking orders and offering curbside pickup.
“We still have a good supply at the moment, but unfortunately while we’re putting our resources into sanitizer, it’s going to be tough to replace our products as we run out,” said Healy. “We’ve been getting great feedback from the community—for most people, we’re their only resource for spirits right now.”