Distilleries and Breweries Are Retooling to Make Hand Sanitizer

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After a weekend barrage of social media posts documenting sanitizer shortages and soap aisle raids across America’s supermarkets, Melissa Hanesworth and Tara Engel felt they had to act. The two women also knew they were in a position to do something: They had jobs in manufacturing and public affairs at the New York-based North American division ofPernod Ricard SA, the $35 billion French spirits empire behind Absolut vodka and Jameson Irish whiskey. On March 16 they came up with a proposal to retool the corporation’s distilleries for something the country was in dire need of—industrial quantities of hand gel, a cleanser broadly sold out across the country since the outbreak of Covid-19, the disease caused by thenovel coronavirus.

They took their idea to Pernod Ricard’s regional head, Ann Mukherjee, who immediately signed off and began supervising a bat-out-of-hell turnaround. Within 48 hours, Hanesworth and Engel had placed a bulk order of chemicals and worked with the White House coronavirus task force to obtain clearance from regulators to begin manufacture. By March 20, Pernod Ricard’s facility in Fort Smith, Ark., where it makes Malibu coconut rum and Seagram’s gin, had produced 1,000 gallons of hand sanitizer. By the next day, President Trump was lauding the company at a news conference as a shining example of corporations stepping up to the challenge of fighting the global pandemic.

“These two women were the two absolute drivers of what made this thing happen here,” Mukherjee says of Pernod Ricard’s public health project. “I say to everyone on my team that a time of crisis is not what builds your character, it’s what reveals it. To see everyone step up the way they are—my breath has been taken away.”

The distiller’s effort comes as businesses the world over rethink their day-to-day operations so they can help governments fight the coronavirus, which has killed more than 15,000 people globally out of more than 355,000 confirmed infections. Major corporations are heeding the call to address civic need at the fastest pace since World War II, when carmakers such as Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors began producing airplanes and aircraft parts, along with trucks, tanks, marine diesels, guns, and shells. While industry champions were idolized during that period, Big Business nowadays is viewed with suspicion. Yet the speed of its actions amid the global virus crisis could ultimately prove one of the most important factors in fighting the pandemic and help recast its public image.

In the U.S., 3M Co. is doubling its production of N95 respirator masks to an annual rate of 2 billion and Tesla Inc. founder Elon Musk is holding conversations withMedtronic Inc. about “state-of-the-art ventilators.” H&M, the mass-market clothier, is adapting its production lines to supply more surgical garments. In the U.K.,Smiths Group Plc has ramped up the manufacture of its own medical ventilators, which are in short supply, and has made the intellectual property to produce them available to other companies; the government has asked engine makerRolls-Royce Holdings Plc andMcLaren Automotive to help build them.

In China, the country that first reported the outbreak, Foxconn Technology Group, a supplier of iPhone components to Apple Inc., has refitted production lines to manufacture surgical masks. Luxury goods conglomerate LVMH is distributing 40 million of those to French workers and producing hand sanitizer at its Dior and Givenchy perfume plants. The German government has asked the country’s automakers to manufacture medical equipment, people familiar with the matter have said, and a spokesman for Volkswagen AG said the company has forged an international task force to explore other options. On March 21, Google launched a website dedicated to information about Covid-19 a week after Trump touted the company’s help in the fight against the pandemic.

Pernod Ricard’s production of hand gel comes as a wave of beverage-alcohol companies moonlight to fill cleansing-alcohol needs. An increasing number of distilleries, from small-batch whiskey upstarts across mainland U.S. to rum giant Bacardi in Puerto Rico, are racing to supply a product that’s long been the preserve of Dettol, made byReckitt Benckiser Group Plc in the U.K., and Purell, which is a product ofGojo Industries of Akron, Ohio. Brewers such as Budweiser makerAnheuser-Busch InBev NV have also started producing sanitizer, and Scotland’s BrewDog has unveiled slickly branded BrewGel, which will be donated to the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary intensive care unit. The American Craft Spirits Association said 3 in 4 of its distillery members are now producing alcohol for use as disinfectant.

On March 16, Pernod Ricard’s head of communications, Olivier Cavil, walked into his local drugstore in Champagne, the French region that produces the sparkling wine of the same name, and—not knowing whom to ask—told a pharmacist he wanted to provide 70,000 liters of raw alcohol to manufacture hand sanitizer. She connected Cavil to Laboratoire Cooper, which supplies three-quarters of the cleansing gel to French pharmacies. It accepted the donation. By April, Laboratoire Cooper expects to be manufacturing 1.8 million bottles of 5 centiliter doses.

In the U.S., Pernod Ricard expects to produce about 4,000 gallons of hand sanitizer at its Fort Smith facility according to a recipe of denatured raw alcohol, glycerin, and hydrogen peroxide provided by the World Health Organization. The gel will also be made at the company’s bourbon and rye distilleries in Kentucky, Texas, and West Virginia. All of it will be donated to the White House task force to be redistributed to hospitals and wherever else it’s most needed.

“We worked very directly with the top of the house at lightning speed,” Mukherjee says. “This is a great example of government bodies and private companies coming together and really doing what’s right at a time of crisis.”
 
Read more:Disinfectant Manufacturers Scramble to Meet Explosive Demand

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