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Minneapolis distilleries team up to make hand sanitizer amid pandemic-driven shortage

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Carolyn Lange / West Central Tribune

ST. PAUL Three Minneapolis-area liquor distilleries are stepping up to make and donate a hygiene product that has lately been in short supply: hand sanitizer.

Their customers? Homeless shelters, police departments, fire stations, hospitals and other establishments that have recently had a hard time stocking the stuff.

Tattersall Distilling, Du Nord Craft Spirits and Brother Justus Whiskey Co. had already made and gave several batches by Monday, March 30, when a truckload of ethanol was due to arrive.

"We’ve been getting it out as fast as we’ve been able to produce it," Tattersall co-founder Jon Kreidler said.

With the arrival of Monday's ethanol shipment, Kreidler said the three will be able to produce some 9,000 gallons of hand sanitizer a week. They are among the latest distilleries in Minnesota to shift from the production of alcohol to that of a product that panicked shoppers are stripping from store shelves amid the coronavirus pandemic.

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Other Twin Cities-area distilleries recently announced plans to become emergency hand sanitizer producers as well. To the north in Duluth, Vikre Distillery is doing the same .

As Minnesota and the rest of the U.S. continue to combat the health crisis, hygiene products like hand sanitizer, toilet paper and disinfectants have for some been hard to come by. At the onset of the outbreak, and perhaps sensing the lockdown to come, throngs of worried shoppers emptied out grocery stores and other retailers across the country.

The demand for those products was so severe that major retailers like Target had to start limiting the amount that customers could buy at a time.

Kreidler said by phone on Monday that the intensifying pandemic has left social service organizations, health care providers and public safety agencies in continual need of hand sanitizer. A total of 629 cases COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coranivurus, were confirmed in Minnesosta by Tuesday, according to the state Department of Health.

While 288 of the infected have been cleared to exit from self-quarantine, 82 are hospitalized and 12 have died.

The distillers say their manufacture of hand sanitizer can be of use to the medics and first responders on the front lines of the fight against the disease. It might also help them to rehire some of the workers they laid off during the initial wave of outbreak-related business closures. They plan to distribute hand sanitizer in the metro area and in parts of Greater Minnesota.

"We’re going to bring back quite a few once this is fully ramped up," Kreidler said.

Licensed distilleries are poised to produce hand sanitizer because they are in the unique position of being able to import ethanol, which can be used to make it. Workers at the three can easily whip it up by hand, Kreidler said, using a World Health Organization-approved formula.

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The hard part, Kreidler said, is trying to source hand sanitizer packaging and ingredients at a time when supply chains are being disrupted. Finding a means of transporting it has been a challenge, too.

Tattersall, Du Nord and Brother Justus are for now relying on donations to power their new operation, some of which have come from non-profit organizations. Kreidler said they have sought state support and still hope to receive it.

Until then, they're asking for those who can donate to cover costs for those who can't afford to at the moment.

Having already delivered to metro area groups in recent days, Kreidler said the three have a shipment of hand sanitizer bound for Lake Region Healthcare in Fergus Falls that they expect to deliver this week. They partnered with the Greater Fergus Falls economic development group for the job.

"In these unprecedented times, partnership between our regional hospital system and private businesses are crucial," Greater Fergus Falls CEO Annie Deckert said in a statement. "As the strain on the supply chain tightens, rapid production on local levels must ramp up."

In a somewhat unlikely collaboration, Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation alcohol and drug treatment centers also ordered hand sanitizer from the three. Foundation vice president of human resources Dawne Carlson said the outbreak made it difficult to procure alcohol-free hand sanitizer that the centers usually stock.

While the hand sanitizer the foundation plans to purchase will be alcohol-based, Carlson said it is denatured and essentially undrinkable.

"My hope is that it helps them be more efficient in their operations," Carlson said of the arrangement. "And of course it helps us."

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