As retailers across the country sell out of hand sanitizer, masks and other essential personal protective equipment, some unexpected businesses are stepping up to help.

The central concern locally is whether the supply of these products will be enough - especially to meet the needs of our front-line workers in the region. 

Luckily, a variety of local businesses have volunteered time and resources to help produce the products necessary to handle the COVID-19 pandemic. From auto parts manufacturers making ventilators to libraries using 3D printers to produce facial shield components, many organizations have found ways to repurpose their equipment or products to help the cause. 

One of the biggest industry-related product trends to arise from this health crisis has been hand sanitizer - created using a byproduct from the distilling processes at local distilleries.

Among those distilleries is Dixon’s Distilled Spirits in Guelph and Willibald Farm Distillery & Brewery in Ayr

“I can honestly say that I didn’t imagine in my wildest dreams, [while] getting in the spirits business to make whisky and gin, that there would ever come a point where I would make hand sanitizer,” Willibald’s co-founder Cameron Formica said. 

“I think desperate times call for desperate measures, and I think both for the survival of our business but then also to provide something that the community was desperately in need of…. To be in a position where we could help? You know, that was huge. And you don’t find yourself in that position very often,” Formica added.

The public demand has surpassed what Willibald was initially expecting when they announced their plans to produce hand sanitizer a few months ago. The response has been overwhelming for Dixon’s as well.

As news of sanitizer shortages grew amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Dixon’s had to think fast when they started receiving calls from the public asking if they were making it.

“We said, ‘Uh, we think there’s a problem here.’ We basically walked in one morning and just said, ‘Let’s start making sanitizer. How do we do that, and how do we do it real fast?’ … Within 18 hours, we had our first batch of sanitizer and [we were] handing it out to the front-line workers–paramedics, police, firefighters [and] nurses” Dixon’s president J.D. Dixon said.

Distilleries are in a unique situation to produce hand sanitizer because they already produce the high levels of alcohol needed. 

“When you see ‘40 per cent in a bottle,’ well, we don’t make 40, we make 95, pure alcohol. Then we reduce it and blend it and make other types of products - gins and vodkas and that sort of thing. But we start with 95 per cent and that is a very high concentration of alcohol… It isn’t hard to start blending it with other ingredients to make the proper hand sanitizer type product,” Dixon said.

According to the CDC, hand sanitizer is more effective if it is at least 60 per cent alcohol. 

“For us to make hand sanitizer, we follow the World Health Organization formula, which is predominantly alcohol, along with hydrogen peroxide and glycerol. So for us to transition, having the main ingredient in-house already, we just had to source the other two ingredients. After that, it was just a matter of blending them together in tanks,” Formica said. 

Dixon’s also followed the WHO formula that can be found on the organization’s website

“We … actually reached out to some colleagues at the University of Guelph, just to make sure that our numbers were good, and [to see] if they could help us with the first few batches to make sure the mixture was right,” Dixon said. 

“I think the one way that people could get involved is by making sure that they’re leaving supplies for people in need. If you have a 500 ml bottle, that should last you quite a while, depending on your situation, your job, [and] where you live,” Formica said. 

While Willibald has enough coverage in terms of production and supplies, Formica said we can all play a part in making sure hand sanitizer is distributed fairly within our community.

“Look out for your neighbour and make sure that there’s enough to go around for the people who need it,” Formica said. 

“ …the community’s been very good to us since we opened our doors, and have been very supportive of everything we’ve done on this little farm out in the middle of nowhere, and to be in a position where we could help those people that have helped us along the way, … that was really important. So we’re just fortunate that we’ve been able to make the difference.” 

Other local distilleries have taken up the same cause including Waterloo’s Innocente Brewing Company, Elmira’s Murphy’s Law Distillery Ltd and Elora Distilling Company.