With public health regulations having forced bars and restaurants across Australia to close, local distilleries have begun making hand sanitizer to meet high demand and keep staff employed during the coronavirus pandemic.

Archie Rose Distilling Co. in downtown Sydney is one of Australia's most recognized craft distilleries and ordinarily produces a range of whiskies, gins, vodkas and rums. However, when government regulations on the number of people allowed inside venues became increasingly restrictive, the business needed a way to keep its 16 permanent and casual staff employed.

"We saw, over the space of a week, the venue being able to hold a capacity of 150 (people), to a capacity of 100, to a capacity 50, to bars being shut down," the distillery's head of marketing, Victoria Tulloch, said.

(Photo of hand sanitizer made by Earp Distilling Co. in Newcastle.)
[Photo courtesy of Earp Distilling Co.]

"We were keen to very quickly figure out if we had to stand those bar staff down, how we could redeploy them in any way. And that, together with the collective consciousness about the fact that we are in a position to produce hand sanitizer...(meant) we could move quite quickly on it."

Since March 23, the majority of Australia's hospitality venues, including pubs, restaurants and cafes, have been restricted to takeout-only services. Both indoor and outdoor gatherings have also been limited to two people in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus.

Like many distilleries, Archie Rose receives regular shipments of ethanol, which it has used to create a hand sanitizer based on World Health Organization and Australia Department of Health guidelines.

The sanitizer is scented using botanicals such as grapefruit and thyme that would otherwise have been used in the distillery's beverage production.

While panic buying of household goods has largely ceased, hand sanitizer remains highly sought after for families and businesses alike.

For Josh Earp of Earp Distilling Co. in Newcastle, about two hours' drive north of Sydney, it was the family business's own need for hand sanitizer that saw the distillery temporarily stop making gins, vodkas and limoncello.

"We had a number of orders with different suppliers of hand sanitizer for both our distillery and our tile businesses and those went on back order (as the pandemic spread)," the marketing manager said.

(Photo of hand sanitizer made by Archie Rose Distilling Co. in Sydney.)
[Photo courtesy of Archie Rose Distilling Co.]

While the distillery sells its products direct to the consumer, Earp says it has prioritized essential businesses, such as the postal service, health industries and construction companies.

"Without our sanitizer the wheels stop on transport...It's a scary thought if those guys can't get their hands on it," Earp said.

"Yes, it is a health issue, but there's also that parallel of business and the economy, and these businesses can't operate without it."

Sales of hand sanitizer at both distilleries have been brisk and stock is often sold out. However, short supplies of ethanol and packaging such as bottles and caps have hampered the companies' ability to produce more of the highly prized product.

The short supply of ethanol is undoubtedly due to the pandemic, according to Archie Rose's Tulloch.

"We've never produced hand sanitizer before, but we usually have a very steady supply of ethanol," he said. "It's all just to do with the unprecedented demand for hand sanitizer in general."

When it comes to packaging, both companies have had to become more flexible. They are using bottles and caps from a variety of sources.

For Earp Distilling, that has also meant moving away from the company's signature ceramic bottles and toward soft, plastic pouches more commonly seen in packaging for juices and yoghurts.

"We're adapting on many, many levels," Earp said.

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