Philly’s coronavirus response

Distillers join forces on massive effort: 1.3M bottles of sanitizer for frontline workers in PA

The first shipments have gone out to hospitals across the state.

Courtesy Rob Cassell

As distilleries transform into makeshift hand sanitizer factories, New Liberty Distillery founder Rob Cassell has kicked things up a notch.

In mid-March, as the extent of the nationwide shortage became apparent, the 43-year-old Philadelphia spiritsmaker had a realization. It’s great to offer sanitizer to individual customers, he thought, but getting it to the many frontline workers who really need it — and ensuring it meets World Health Organization standards? That would take a much bigger effort.

So Cassell, who over a decade ago was instrumental in rewriting Pennsylvania liquor laws to allow for the craft distilling boom, jumped into action.

“This is to mobilize and consolidate for an extreme volume to fill a need,” Cassell told Billy Penn.

With the help of a few colleagues, he coordinated hundreds of calls among dozens of stakeholders, bouncing between members of the Pa. Distillers Guild, state and federal elected officials, various county health departments, relief agencies, private donors and plastics suppliers.

The end result: a steady supply chain that will deliver at least 1.3 million bottles of sanitizer to hospitals, law enforcement, first responders and post offices over the next few weeks.

“The USPS central office [in Philadelphia] had given us a request of 50k bottles per day,” Cassell said. “Hospitals are asking, ‘How much do you have and when can we get it?'”

The first load has already been shipped, he added.

Distribution is being handled by the state. Institutions seeking shipments can place orders via PEMA’s “mission request form.” The Pa. Dept. of Health will determine how much sanitizer gets allocated to which requesters, and when it’ll be sent.

Cassell saved bottle No. 1 so he could deliver it to Pa. Gov. Tom Wolf himself.

Making sure it’s top quality

More than 100 distilleries across the commonwealth are expected to join the effort, said Barry Young, founder of Pittsburgh vodka maker Boyd & Blair.

“I think it’s important because we have the capability to do something that can help everyone,” Young said. “We have the expertise — and we’re allowed to be open.”

A former pharmacist, Young was one of the project’s early collaborators. As Cassell worked on regulatory hurdles, he took the lead on hammering out production guidelines. The goal: fashion a recipe that could be used across operators’ varied equipment setups.

To keep things simple, the distillers will not be adding aloe vera gel, but instead following a World Health Organization formula that uses glycerin and hydrogen peroxide.

Because of that, the sanitizer they’re producing doesn’t feel like what you buy at the pharmacy. Young compared the consistency to what it’s like “when you add water to your dish soap to make it stretch.”

The main ingredient, of course, is ethanol, which distilleries have in relatively bountiful supply, with ability to make more as needed.

“That’s what’s in demand right now,” Young said. “All the denatured alcohol is gone, that’s why the Purell people can’t just spin up production” to solve the shortage.

Once it’s mixed, the sanitizer is being bottled in 4-oz. containers provided by Drug Plastics & Glass in Boyertown. The Berks County medical packaging company has committed to donating all 1.3 million bottles the guild needs, according to Cassell.

Cutting through red tape

State officials were quick to recognize the benefits of coordination, Cassell said. The Liquor Control Board, not known for its willingness to bend rules, gave approval within 36 hours of initial discussions.

Cassell then turned to the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which initially wanted to charge excise tax on the ethanol used, as if it were being made into booze. Working with congressional representatives, he was able to get the TTB requirement lifted, and also get the FDA to give blanket approval to the distillers’ shared formula.

“Mr. Cassell’s energy and leadership on this project has been nothing short of inspiring,” said Delco Congresswoman Mary Scanlon in an emailed statement. “We were able to work together to cut the red tape for these folks on the ground who want to do their part.”

Scanlon ran point on the legislative effort, Cassell said, but many others helped, across party lines. “I’m going to have to volunteer for so many campaigns this fall,” he joked.

Philly Congressman Brian Boyle returned the compliment. “I applaud Mr. Cassell for providing his vision and leadership in the private business arena to make this effort successful,” Boyle said.

State Senators Vincent Hughes and Tim Kearney also played big roles, according to Cassell, including help finding funding for the project.

In addition to a line of credit from PIDC, initial start up capital was secured from private investors, including Todd Strine of Keystone Quality Transport, Osagie Imasogie of PIPV Capital, David Adelman of Campus Apartments and Darco Capital, LP.

Thanks to those investments, Pa. distilleries involved in the effort will be able pay workers at least $15/hour, even though sales are down because all Fine Wine & Good Spirits stores are closed.

Many distillers are hiring as the supply chain ramps up. Cassell said anyone looking for work can email to find out more.

Want some more? Explore other Philly’s coronavirus response stories.

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