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From bourbon to hand sanitizer: LI distillers' new focus

Twin Stills Moonshine is making more than just alcohol these days. The Riverhead mom-and-pop store is making and distributing free hand sanitizers to Long Islanders during the coronavirus pandemic.  Credit: News 12 Long Island

The making of craft bourbon, gin and vodka is on hold as Long Island distilleries switch gears to produce hand sanitizer.

Small craft beverage makers across the region have ceased normal operations to answer the state’s call for increased manufacturing of products needed to combat COVID-19.

In recent weeks, state agencies have been in contact with makers of spirits across New York, encouraging the beverage manufacturers to pursue production of much-needed hand sanitizer, a product reliant on high-proof ethanol.

“We are shutting down and going to war,” said Brian Faquet, vice president of the New York State Distillers Guild, a 150-member industry advocacy group. “There are a number of producers who are going to be producing around the clock.”

Faquet, founder of Prohibition Distillery in upstate Rosco, said the Distillers Guild had been in contact with state officials and discussed how members might help. Because distilleries work with specialized equipment capable of making high-proof alcohol, they have become an unorthodox source of hand sanitizer, which remains in short supply.

The switch to the hand sanitizer business has been made at Long Island Spirits, makers of LiV Vodka and Rough Rider Bourbon.

“We’ve repurposed a lot of our people to start producing our hand sanitizer,” said Rich Stabile, founder and master distiller at Long Island Spirits, which has 12 employees. 

The Baiting Hollow distiller, which is following an FDA-mandated recipe for sanitizer suitable for commercial sale, has focused most of its sanitizer business toward supplying frontline workers and essential business organizations, and has already shipped orders to NYU Langone Hospital, Huntington Hospital and Mather Hospital, he said.

“We’re talking hundreds and hundreds of bottles. Several hundred cases,” Stabile said.

Additionally, the company is selling its 8-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer at its distillery for pickup by customers, with a limit of two per person. The distiller is donating a portion of sales to The World’s Biggest Tip Jar, a GoFundMe campaign organized by the makers of Fireball Whiskey in New Orleans, to assist out-of-work hospitality staff.

“We produce a lot of bourbon and rye and that’s all paused,” Stabile said.

Distillation involves the boiling of fermented agricultural products such as grain, fruits or vegetables. From that heated mixture, or mash, flammable, vaporized alcohol is extracted and cooled to liquid form.  Given the presence of flammable vapors, the process can be dangerous, and those safety concerns can mean greater scrutiny by federal and state regulators, and added expenses.

Making hand sanitizer requires the distilling of high proof alcohol -- around 190 proof, or nearly 100% alcohol, to start -- that is then blended down to around 80% alcohol and mixed with glycerin, hydrogen peroxide and distilled water.

Selling hand sanitizer may help keep the lights on at distilleries, many of which are just hoping to break even after losing out on the much-needed revenue of tasting room sales, which ended March 16 with the state's prohibition on bar and restaurant service, Faquet said.

“We’re going to be running a business on pennies,” he said of himself and other New York distillers. “And at the end of it all, it’s sad that we might not be here.”

Better Man Distilling Co., a recently established distillery at the site of Blue Point Brewing Co.'s former Patchogue headquarters, has  joined in on the commercial production of hand sanitizer, stopping its normal gin distilling to turn corn into ethanol for sanitizer.

“We’re starting to mix the sanitizer and get it out to the people that need it,” said Anthony Grupposo, founder of Better Man. The distiller said it has the capacity to produce about 800 32-ounce bottles a week and plans to start distributing to frontline workers and essential organizations next week.  

Grupposo said the firm, which has three employees,   is in early talks with Long Island Community Hospital and Northwell Health.

“Those people who are out there on the front lines, that’s where we’re going to send them to first,” he said.

Some distillers on the Island haven’t turned their businesses into commercial sanitizer operations but are still hoping to help locals have access to  the scarce commodity.

Twin Stills Moonshine, a maker of craft moonshine in Riverhead, has been giving away batches of homemade hand sanitizer using donated aloe and bottles from the community for the last couple weekends, said Joe Cunha, co-owner of the distillery.

The business, which Cunha runs with his wife Patty, has given away roughly 4,000 3-to-4-ounce bottles of the Twin Stills sanitizer blend, with a limit of one per person.

“We’re putting about 10 to 12 hours in a day,” Cunha said about the process. He said he doesn’t plan to sell the sanitizer, given the distillery's small size and the complexity of the FDA rules regulating sanitizer for sale.

“My only plan is for this to be over so I can go back to making moonshine,” he said. 

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