28 May 2020
28 May 2020
It only took the team at Cape Byron Distillery, the brains behind Brookie’s Gin, a couple of weeks to deliver their first 15-litre container of hand sanitiser to nearby essential services. They produced 5000 litres in that first week. Since mid-March those numbers have climbed to 15,000 litres a week, distributed all over Australia.
Of the company’s decision to begin manufacturing a product it had never made before, spokesperson Matt Barnett says it was a no-brainer. “People on the front-line really needed it,” he explains, noting nationwide shortages. “We wanted to help the community operate in a healthy and safe way.” It’s not the distillery’s first rodeo – it’s well known for doing good. In the past 30 years it has regenerated and replanted more than 35,000 subtropical rainforest trees.
Unlike some brands to have flipped from spirits to sanitiser, Cape Byron Distillery isn’t out to make a profit from the pandemic. The price covers its cost of production, packaging and ingredients, and that’s it. But those ingredients have not been easy to find.
“We have the capacity to scale up, we’re just managing supply of raw materials,” Barnett says. Raw ethanol, the key ingredient in medical-grade hand sanitiser, has been difficult to source, as has packaging. The bottles don’t come with a spray or pump, either. There just aren’t any.
Just over the border in Queensland, the state government asked Beenleigh Rum Distillery and Bundaberg Rum Distillery to make ethanol for hand sanitiser, to which they immediately agreed. Bundaberg Rum is on track to donate 100,000 litres – enough to produce around 500,000 bottles. Its parent company, Diageo, has also pledged enough ethanol to produce more than eight million bottles of sanitiser for frontline healthcare workers around the world.
For some distilleries, the production of hand sanitiser isn’t just about saving lives, but also saving jobs. Not only are Aussies drinking less during COVID-19 restrictions (yes, really – between 10 and 30 per cent less, according to lobby group Alcoholic Beverages Australia), distilleries have also had to close their cellar doors, losing essential trade.
It was a loss that hit Yarra Valley distillery Four Pillars hard. It’s still producing its award-winning gins, but a fast pivot to producing hand sanitiser kept 30 employees on the payroll after the lockdown forced the closure of the distillery’s tasting room/cocktail bar.
“We charge $25 for a 1-litre bottle and that’s pretty much just cost recovery,” says Four Pillars co-founder and distiller Cameron MacKenzie. “It means we can redeploy our cellar door staff to bottling lines.”
MacKenzie’s first run of hand sanitiser sold out within five days. Consumers can order 700-millitre bottles online for $40 (expect a waiting list), but the real market isn’t retail. “We’re aimed fairly and squarely at health workers, particularly post-work so they can wash their hands before they walk in their front door.”
The distillery has set up a bulk tank to support its local community, too. Healesville’s schools, aged care centres, churches and local businesses are welcome to bring a refillable spray bottle or pump pack and fill up as they need.
MacKenzie says he’ll keep making hand sanitiser for as long as needed, although he’d prefer work to return to normal. “Honestly, I am more comfortable making gin, but never say never.”
Other hospitality businesses have been motivated to make a change as well. Melbourne coffee giant ST. ALi has also moved into hand sanitiser production in a bid to protect its employees’ jobs. Before COVID-19, owner Salvatore Malatesta was exploring ways to expand the store’s offering through its ecommerce platform and was considering a move into personal care items. When the virus reached Australia, ST. ALi had already partnered with industrial chemist HydroChem and had the infrastructure set up to redeploy its 72 staff members.
"I was so proud of my coffee guys for being nimble and willing to go from a roasting factory in Port Melbourne to making, bottling and packing hand sanitiser at a chemical facility in Braeside," says Malatesta.
The coffee roaster's hand sanitiser, which bears the message Be Calm. Be Kind. Be Clean, is available to purchase online and at its South Melbourne venue, which has been transformed into a general store that will stay open after the pandemic has passed.
To support organisations struggling through the crisis, ST. ALi will also launch the ST. ALi Hand Sanitiser Project, which will allow people to donate a carton of sanitiser to a business of their choice after making a purchase.
"It's a foundation we've always wanted to start, and it will live on even after the current situation," says Malatesta. "In its current form, it gives people the opportunity to crowdsource a beneficiary that matters to them, and I think that’s really important.”
By Nola James