Several Petaluma distilleries trading spirits for sanitizer production
Griffo Distillery is operating around the clock, an anomalous buzz of activity in a silenced and largely paralyzed Petaluma business community. It’s not their gin or barrel-aged whiskey that has husband and wife owners Jenny and Michael Griffo so busy, rather, a coveted new product: gallons of hand sanitizer.
They’ve been manufacturing, bottling and shipping, selling to walk-in customers and fulfilling bulk orders “non-stop, 24/7” as need for the solution amid the coronavirus pandemic continues to skyrocket.
A nimble shift from spirits to sanitizer is taking shape in distilleries across the county, including at least three in Petaluma, in a groundswell of localized effort to bolster a depleted supply. While Griffo Distillery remains the largest operation and is making the most hand sanitizer, Barber Lee Spirits and Sonoma Coast Spirits are also creating smaller batches.
“It’s really great to see all these distilleries across the county changing operations to step up and do what they can,” said Barber Lee Spirits owner Lorraine Barber. “It’s always easier to do nothing, but I think a common thread in these distilleries is a strong connection to their communities and wanting to give back.”
The Griffos made the decision mid-March to liquidate every non-barreled drop of alcohol they had, conscripting gallons into hand sanitizer production. What they had procured for custom spirits and new beverage projects was instead denatured and repackaged into medical- grade hand sanitizer.
For an industry rooted in appeasing the taste buds and entrenched in sentiments of celebration, it’s been a strange shift, dictated by the unprecedented nature of the current crisis.
“It’s funny to be taking alcohol that would be going into these craft spirits and intentionally making it non-potable and strictly utilitarian,” said Michael Griffo, a trained chemist who handles much of the production.
Barber Lee Spirits began bottling up its limited supply of hand sanitizer around the same time as the Griffos, throwing Lorraine Barber into an “interesting” new world of FDA and CDC regulations and labeling requirements.
Aside from the strangeness of it all, the Griffos said the decision was an obvious one to make, happy to have the capabilities to help first responders and vulnerable populations as the coronavirus pandemic grows. This is despite a skeleton crew and the significant financial injury of canceled events, an empty tasting room and stunted sales.
“While we love giving people great experiences and things that are incredible to drink, it feels so incredible for us to pull through for the community and give them things they need,” Michael Griffo said.
Assistant Distiller Thomas Painter first dipped his toes into the sanitizer game Mar. 14, creating an exploratory initial batch. From there, daily output grew exponentially, from two gallons to more than 500 gallons by Monday.
The small team is now fulfilling orders for both individual customers and large organizations hard hit by the public health crisis. These include local governments, the Petaluma Health Center, San Quentin State Prison, California Highway Patrol, UCSF Medical Center and Petaluma’s first responders.
“It’s been crazy trying to meet this demand,” Jenny Griffo said. “We’re still a scrappy small business trying to make it, but we’re used to filling needs and being nimble. We kind of feel made for this, like an underlying purpose for us as a small business is to quickly adapt and adjust for our community’s needs.”