As a distiller, Brock Coutts is accustomed to crafting solutions: gin, vodka, and whisky.
However, in desperate times, as the world reckons with the spread of COVID-19, the founder of Winnipeg's Patent 5 Distillery has begun working on an impotable one that isn't just a chemical solution, but a social one: hand sanitizer.
"On Monday, we made the decision to close our cocktail room," he said over the phone Friday morning. "By Tuesday, we were getting requests for sanitizer, and by Wednesday, we decided we'd make a quick pivot."
The Exchange District company isn't doing it for a profit: every last bottle will go exclusively to organizations serving vulnerable people across the province, at no cost.
"We're trying to put a little in everyone's hands," Coutts said. "Everybody needs it."
As it turns out, making the stuff wasn't too complex: the business already had hundreds of glass bottles available, as well as high-proof alcohol — one of the key ingredients of effective sanitary products. All it needed was water, a container suited to holding the mixture, and a helping of glycerin.
Dinah Santos, a pharmacist and Coutts' wife, made some calls seeking the liquid, which has anti-viral properties, and in less than a day, the distillery was pumping out sanitizer by the 375-millilitre bottle.
On its first day of production, Patent 5 filled 65 glass bottles normally reserved for premium vodka. In the coming days, sanitizer production level could reach nearly 200, with bottles destined for everywhere from the Main Street Project to Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre.
Hundreds of distillers around the world have made a similar pivot, as organizations, health-care workers, and in some cases, overzealous shoppers, have caused a run on hand sanitizers. There exists a pressure on distributors and the companies that traditionally make the product, and distilleries — many of which have temporarily closed — were eager to step in.
It's a move akin to auto manufacturers shifting factory gears to develop munitions during the Second World War, only for distilleries such as Patent 5, the new product requires little retraining, if any, and essentially no new equipment. Making matters easier, the World Health Organization has published and circulated proven formulations for making sanitizer, which requires precise measurements and sound technique.
While vodka-making is a "painfully slow" process, hand sanitizer is a brisker business: it only took four hours to make 65 bottles, and Coutts said the process will only continue to speed up as the team becomes more familiar with the steps.
Only a year into the spirit business, Coutts never imagined making anything but drinks.
"Making a gin and having someone say it's the best they've ever tasted is satisfying," he said. "This is satisfying in a very different way."
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.
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