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Central Coast distilleries pitch in to produce needed supplies

Greta Mart/KCBX
An applicable meme provides a bit of levity at Paso Robles' Krobar Craft Distillery.

As the novel coronavirus pandemic widens, the acute shortage of personal protective equipment worsens; things like face masks and hand sanitizer. To help meet the great need, Central Coast distilleries are changing their production lines from booze to bottling ethanol-based sanitizer.

For years, Aaron Bergh has been making spirits. Now he owns and operates the Calwise Spirits Company in Paso Robles.

“We make rums, gins, liqueurs, whiskey, brandy...a little bit of everything,” Bergh said. “Our flagship spirit is our Big Sur gin that we make from grapes and native plants that grow in Big Sur.”

But the pandemic has changed all that. Bergh said he started hearing about a shortage of hand sanitizer, and figured while it may be sold out at local stores, hospitals and first responders surely must have a steady supply.

“These people who I assumed had access to this not—and they're scrambling, looking for it so that they can continue to serve the community and take care of people,” Bergh said. “So within a matter of twelve hours, I started producing hand sanitizer and getting it out to people.”

He got the recipe and guidelines from the federal agency that regulates distilleries.

“For the first time ever—as far as I know—the FDA and the federal government has given distilleries emergency authority to make hand sanitizer,” Bergh said. “Which is crazy. I never thought I would ever see something like that.”

Bergh’s phones are ringing almost non stop these days, people looking to buy his sanitizer. For the time being, he has enough of the necessary ingredients—high proof alcohol, hydrogen peroxide and glycerine. Even getting his hands on those proved challenging, until he reached out to the local business community and got what he needed. A CBD oil producer had extra bottles. A Paso Robles flavor-extract producer had extra hydrogen peroxide.

And he didn’t need to change any of his stills or set-up.

“I already have the equipment needed, I have the stainless steel, sanitary tanks and the pumps and everything needed to make this stuff, so the transition was a very easy one for me,” Bergh said.

All U.S. distilleries have permission to manufacture hand sanitizer through at least June 30. So far, Bergh estimates he’s made about 200 gallons.

Joe Barton, co-owner of Krobar Craft Distillery in Paso Robles, started making sanitizer to use at his own retail store when crowds descended before the stay-at-home orders went into effect. Speaking inside his distillery, he said the wider need for sanitizer by hospitals, public safety, grocery stores quickly became apparent.

“For us, it's been almost mind-blowing to see how there isn't a whole lot there and it won't just be us—every distillery needs to try to help, because there's such a lack that not one person here can fill it,” Barton said.

Likening it to how 9/11 changed air travel forever, Barton says the coronavirus pandemic has changed his outlook.

“This period of time is probably gonna be life changing for all of us—there'll be a lot of things that we do in life that won't ever be the same because of this experience,” Barton said.

Barton estimates he’s bottled and sold a few hundred gallons of sanitizer so far, and he plans to continue making until the pandemic wanes. Then he’ll return to producing gin, vodka and brandy.

As for Calwise’s Aaron Bergh, he says he hopes this pandemic will open eyes to the necessity of pre-planning.

“I think the most surprising and shocking thing to me—that will always stay with me—is how everyone is just out of stock, and how people that that you would not expect to be out of stock of something as essential as sanitizer are out of it now,” Bergh said. “And it's not their fault. Our supply chain has just broken down in the face of this pandemic that we've never experienced before. I think that will always leave a lasting impression on me...that hospitals don't have the sanitizer, they're having to use trash bags as hospital gowns. And to me, that's just crazy and something I never thought I'd see, and hope that I never have to see again.”