Sask. distilleries producing hand sanitizer in fight against COVID-19

There’s more demand for hand sanitizer than ever due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to stop germs from spreading.

This has led to shortages throughout North America with some people hoarding products, essential business having to bulk order, and health workers needing it to stay safe. 

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Although proper hand washing technique with water and soap is the best way to stay hygienic during this, alcohol based sanitizers are the next best option.

To help with the hand sanitizer demand during this crisis, Health Canada has temporarily changed its rules to authorize the use of technical-grade ethanol for use in hand sanitizer products.

Regularly hand sanitizers are made with United States Pharmacopeia (USP) or food grade ethanol, but Health Canada made the decision to change their rules around ethanol during the shortage. 

The hand sanitizer that is approved by Health Canada as an alternate option to proper hand washing must be at least 60 per cent alcohol to meet the requirements for safety. 

Manufacturers using technical-grade ethanol in their hand sanitizers must provide additional information on their product labels to support the safe use of their products:

Clearly indicate that technical-grade ethanol is included as an ingredient.

Specific directions for use and warnings that these products are intended for adult use only, that they should not be used on broken or damaged skin, that they should not be used by women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, and they should not be inhaled.

Information on how to report any adverse reactions to Health Canada. 

Health Canada allowing for these hand sanitizer changes has led to other manufacturers stepping up to offer a helping hand during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Distilleries across Canada have the majority of the ingredients needed to produce alcohol based hand sanitizer and many of them have answered the call when the need became clear.

It began with Niagara’s Dillon’s Small Batch Distillers and Vancouver Island’s Victoria Distillers in mid-March and over 60 distilleries from across Canada have joined since.

Saskatchewan distilleries are putting hand sanitizer before spirits with the work they’re doing.

 

Sask. distilleries stepping up

Distilleries in Saskatchewan such as Smooth 42 Craft Distillery (Brownlee), Stumbletown Distilling (Saskatoon), Lucky Bastard Distillers (Saskatoon), Last Mountain Distillery (Lumsden), and Radouga Distilleries (Blaine Lake) have been producing hand sanitizer for free for first responders and essential service workers, and some have begun selling it to consumers with the high-demand for the product.

When Smooth 42 Craft Distillery co-owner Sacha Elez became concerned the health care system could be overrun due to COVID-19 he wanted to do something to fight back.

“We were kind of the first in Saskatchewan to start making sanitizer,” said Elez. “We actually started making a rubbing alcohol first before the approved formula came out.”

“We had no idea how many people were in short supply and as soon as the orders started coming in we just shifted our focus from making booze to making hand sanitizer.”

“When we initially started, it was just an offer. We basically said, ‘if your an emergency service worker, police, nurse, paramedics and you can’t get hand sanitizer then we’re donating it to you for free.’ That was the whole idea,” said Elez.

“We gave out about $75,000 worth because orders just started flooding in and I was getting about 120 phone calls a day.”

With the overwhelming demand for hand sanitizer Smooth 42 began producing it for anybody in need.

“Then we opened up a GoFundMe campaign to try and get some money coming back in to fund the donations we were sending out.”

“It became obvious that we weren’t able to keep up with our costs like that,” said Elez. “So we shifted gears to start selling hand sanitizer.”

“It was the right call because since we started selling it we’ve been able to afford to buy more efficient equipment which allows us to produce even more sanitizer.”

“If we were giving it away the whole time and working with what we had with no income then we’d only be able to produce a fraction of what we’re currently making.”

“Right now our production is about 31,000 litres per week of hand sanitizer,” said Elez. “We’re running 20 hours a day out here to keep up with the orders.”

Everybody in essential services needs hand sanitizer to continue to work in a healthy and safe environment during the pandemic.

“I’m amazed at the different varieties of businesses that are ordering from us,” said Elez. “From trucking companies to office supply companies to restaurants, pharmacies, clinics, daycares, grocery stores, corrections, RCMP, police departments all over Saskatchewan.”

“When we’re back ordered we try to prioritize anything to do with essential services.”

Once Saskatchewan is in the clear, Elez says they would only likely continue to produce sanitizer if other provinces needed the help.

“The whole point is to help stop the infection rate and flatten the curve in Saskatchewan first and foremost,” said Elez. 

“If there’s no orders coming in for Saskatchewan because we’re all set here then we’ll be sending it off to whoever needs it the most whether that be in Alberta, B.C, Manitoba, or Ontario, whoever needs it.”

 

Opportunity to help

When the need for more hand sanitizer producers became clear, Stumbletown Distilling saw an opportunity to help.

“As soon as COVID-19 started spreading I saw some friends who have a distillery in B.C. and they jumped on it right away,” said Stumbletown Distilling owner Craig Holland. “I was trying to follow suit and do what we could to help.”

“We’ve got a byproduct that’s not usable, but we could repurpose it by following a formula to turn it into hand sanitizer.”

“The main ingredient started off as a byproduct of what we are producing with our alcohol products and then there’s a few things to add to turn it into hand sanitizer following a World Health Organization (WHO) formula,” said Holland.

Stumbletown Distilling teamed up with Lucky Bastard Distillers to produce as much hand sanitizer as they could for those in need.

“We actually approached our buddies at Lucky Bastard and decided to partner with them to make it,” said Holland. “They’ve got a bigger facility and more manpower so it made sense.”

“We’ve manufactured it all at Lucky Bastard’s so far, they’re only a few blocks away from us,” said Holland. “So it was nice for us to just take some of our stuff over there and work on it with them.”

“It’s just the right thing to do,” said Holland. “People needed help and there’s a global shortage so this was a way we could get involved and do our part.”

With the help of donations, the two distilleries were able to work together to concentrate on producing hand sanitizer for free.

“We got some other companies involved who kicked in some donations,” said Holland. 

“Saskatchewan Blue Cross, Courtesy Plumbing and Heating, and Custom Labels who does a lot of our labelling for our products, so we had some help from other companies around Saskatoon as well.” 

Since they began in mid-March, the distilleries have almost become solely focused on hand sanitizer. 

 

Given Away

“We’ve actually given away over 8,000 litres of hand sanitizer, which is a crazy amount,” said Holland. “We gave away more hand sanitizer in a month than we produced in spirits in a year.”

“We focussed on first responders and front line workers,” said Holland. “When we first got going it was all going to those guys who needed it the most and couldn’t get it.”

“We had a three tier system, front line workers, first responders, and other critical services and health care professionals.” 

“Once we had enough we gave some to the public,” said Holland. “We’d just announce it on social media and I think we’ve given away 1,400 bottles on two separate occasions.”

“The last two weeks of March and the first week of April was pretty much all focussed on hand sanitizer.”

For now, they haven’t begun selling hand sanitizer as a product, but with the demand going forward they’re considering sticking with producing hand sanitizer as well as spirits.

“We haven’t sold any yet, we’ve donated it all,” said Holland. “We can’t afford to do that forever so we will begin to sell it probably.”

“It was nice to be able to get it out there for free to the people who needed it while the demand was super high.” 

“Just because of the situation, it could be a high demand product for a long time,” said Holland. 

“Even when things get back to normal people will probably be buying more hand sanitizer than they were.” 

“People have reached out asking to buy it so we’ll try to do what we can to keep everybody in supply,” said Holland. “A lot of big companies like construction and mining companies want to buy big orders of it.”

“We’ll probably begin to sell it, we’re not looking to go into the hand sanitizer business, but because there’s a demand it’s something we’ll try to provide as a company.”

 

Partnering 

Last Mountain Distillery partnered with their competitor Radouga Distilleries to gain access to more alcohol to donate hand sanitizer during this time.

“We’re not looking to retail it,” said Last Mountain Distillery co-owner Colin Schmidt. “We’ve made some to do our part and haven’t really advertised it.”

When the shortage of hand sanitizer began, people reached out to Last Mountain Distillery to see if they would consider producing hand sanitizer.

“Weeks and weeks ago as soon as the shortage happened we got licensed by the federal government in quick order in order to do it,” said Schmidt.

“It was about the same time Lucky Bastard was doing it,” said Schmidt. “We were getting calls from health care professionals, local EMS and firefighters saying that they were out of hand sanitizer.”

“It was a no-brainer for us to get licensed and do what we could to contribute,” said Schmidt.

“People reached out directly to us and asked if we had the ability to make it and I did some research and there was a formula put out by WHO that complies with Health Canada’s requirements,” said Schmidt.

“We had all the components we just had to get our hands on some glycerol and we were good to go.”

With how easy it is for the distillery to produce, it seemed like the perfect way to use their time and do their part says Schmidt.

“It’s actually very easy to make, it’s just hard to source the ingredients right now because they’re in such high demand,” said Schmidt. “It’s literally a matter of compounding three items together and having the ability to test alcohol percentage accurately.”

 

Wanting to help

For Last Mountain Distillery they just wanted to help those who needed it because they knew they could during the pandemic.

“We’ve donated over 1,000 litres and we have plans to make some more,” said Schmidt. “We have some farmers that have reached out to us, the people who provide wheat for our rye.”

“If you think about it, most of us have access to soap and water,” said Schmidt. “A lot of people who really need it are the people in the field and first responders so that’s where we’ve kind of deemed ours will go.”

“We went around our local community and every shop that’s still open and needed it, we donated it to them,” said Schmidt.

“We sent the health care professionals that can’t keep up with supply 1,000 litres to be packaged and sent to the front lines.”

Schmidt isn’t looking for a pat on the back or media attention out of this, he’s just looking to do the right thing. 

“In times like this you see the best and the worst in people,” said Schmidt. “And we’re trying to show our best.”

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