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Several Petaluma distilleries trading spirits for sanitizer production

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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.”

The solution is available to individuals through direct purchase, and with orders of $50 or more in Griffo spirits and items. Each purchase is limited to one 2.5-ounce bottle per person per day, and a 6-ounce bottle is available free of charge for at-risk individuals and front line workers. Orders of a gallon or more require advanced notice, easiest through the company’s website.

“Not an hour goes by when someone isn’t buying it or picking it up,” Painter said.

He estimates they have sold at least 250 small containers of hand sanitizer in the 14 days since his first batch. That number doesn’t include the “countless” other small containers brought in by first responders to fill with the precious disinfectant.

On a smaller scale, Barber Lee Spirits is also offering hand sanitizer to customers, including a 4-ounce bottle with all spirit orders. Unlike Griffo’s larger operation that is able to mass produce, the newly-opened distillery is using the byproduct of their normal operations to create sanitizer that is in-line with health regulations.

“We’re getting calls from friends in health services, and the amount they need is just so huge,” Barber said. “Although we’re a little guy, we’re giving whatever we can.”

In addition to including 4-ounce bottles with regular orders, Barber Lee Spirits is also providing the solution to Petaluma and Penngrove markets.

Every member of the Petaluma Fire Department now has their own individual cache of the Griffo-made sanitizer, said Fire Engineer Duncan Smith.

“We don’t have a choice to social distance, if someone is truly in need, we will help them and put ourselves at risk to do that,” Smith said.

With hand sanitizer severely impacted by soaring demands, Smith said the group of first responders had to think outside the box to ensure they had a reliable supply for the weeks and months ahead. This also meant procuring containers and rationing the 3-gallon bucket of precious hand sanitizer into individual bottles.

As rare as the sanitizing solution is, containers that will safely hold the high-proof liquid is even more elusive. Jenny Griffo spends hours visiting dollar stores, mapping out area stores and businesses where she might get her hands on small bottles and buckets.

It’s a similarly massive obstacle for Lorraine Barber, even with a substantially smaller hand sanitizer output.

“It’s really, really difficult to get bottles, there’s a run on containers right now,” Barber said. “Even if we find a way to produce more, we don’t know how we will be able to get containers, it’s a problem.”

As a result, a bring-your-own-bottle approach is encouraged at Griffo Distillery.

It’s a supply chain fracture that Sonoma Coast Spirits is currently grappling with. Owner Jill Olson said Friday they’re working to begin their first hand sanitizer batches in the next week, aiming to produce about 100 small bottles for individual use. Like Griffo Distillery and Barber Lee Spirits, Olson said customers will receive a free bottle with purchases, and the remainder of the batch will be donated.

Thought storefronts are shuttered, sales have tanked, and health concerns are impacting labor availability, Griffo Distillery and Barber Lee Spirits said they’ll continue to step up and create as much hand sanitizer as they can, calling their ability to help community members and front line workers a “blessing.”

“It’s great to see local people step up and offer something like this,” Smith said. “We have a term in the fire service that we call a subject matter expert, and those folks over there at Griffo are our subject matter experts in producing this. We are definitely lucky to have them.”

(Contact Kathryn Palmer at kathryn.palmer@arguscourier.com, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.)

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