Prince Edward County distillery switching gears to fight coronavirus

Like others in the business, Kinsip Distillery has started producing hand sanitizer. But there's a twist: co-owner Sarah Waterston is also a doctor on the front lines of the pandemic.

Kinsip Distillery co-owner also a doctor on front lines of pandemic response

Kinsip Distillery is a family-owned small-batch spirit producer in Bloomfield, Ont. (Robbie Garden)

A small-batch distillery in Prince Edward County is joining the fight against COVID-19 by using its production facilities to make hand sanitizer.

But there's a twist to this story — one of Kinsip Distillery's owners, Sarah Waterston, is also a doctor on the front lines of the fight against coronavirus.  

Waterston, 40, is a pediatrician with Quinte Health Care, which includes the Belleville General Hospital. Like health-care workers across Canada, she's preparing for an influx of COVID-19 patients. 

Her family-run, "farm-based, grain-to-glass" distillery in Bloomfield, Ont., decided to switch gears to hand sanitizer after Waterston noticed there was an insufficient supply at work.

"Going into a pharmacy or a grocery store, I'm not able to buy any hand sanitizer at this point, and we're starting to hear about organizations that are predicting or experiencing a shortage, which means they're not able to resupply through their typical supply chains," she said.

Kinsip Distillery co-owner Sarah Waterston, with daughters Elspeth Soucie, left, and Meredith Soucie, right, is also a pediatrician with Quinte Health Care. (Jenny Thompson)

Distilleries are uniquely placed to make hand sanitizer because they produce a key ingredient: high-proof alcohol, which is normally crafted into spirits such as gin, rye or whiskey.

But add instead some glycerine and hydrogen peroxide, and voila, you have an important weapon against a pandemic. 

"The active ingredient in hand sanitizer is the same kind of alcohol we produce in our stills," said Michael Waterston, 45, Sarah's brother and head of production at Kinsip.

 "We also need to add some other ingredients, which we're still able to source."

Dr. Sarah Waterston is co-owner of Kinsip Distillery in Bloomfield, Ontario, which is in Prince Edward County. 10:08

There had been glycerine shortages elsewhere in the country, but "people are passing around their supplier so everyone's OK now. It seems like everyone can get as much as they need," he said.

Kinsip is following the World Health Organization's recipe for hand sanitizer, although Health Canada hasn't yet approved the formula. 

Distillers are well-positioned to manufacture hand sanitizer, which is made largely from the same high-proof alcohol used in spirits. (Maria Hristova)

High stakes

The distillery still has an inventory of spirits for sale, but for now has switched production over entirely to hand sanitizer. Sarah Waterston said the stakes are that high.

"If we have a shortage of hand sanitizer, and therefore good hand hygiene in the community ... then that will affect our ability to flatten the curve, and our hospitals, including Quinte Health Care and Belleville General Hospital, will be overwhelmed, and we'll see the effects on patients and their families."

Last weekend, the Waterstons placed small bottles of their new product on a barrel at the farm gate and put the call out to health-care workers to come and get it. Before long, they were all gone, and word is starting to spread among others on the front line of the pandemic.

The development has placed Sarah Waterston in a difficult dilemma: as a doctor, she desperately wants people to stay home and out of hospital, but her family business relies heavily on tourism in Prince Edward County. 

"As a health-care professional, I hope that there is a significant change in tourism," she said. "As a region, as a province, as a nation, we need to be limiting all non-essential travel and activities. But as someone in the tourism industry, I fear that it's going to have a monumental impact." 

The distillery has switched gears from its normal 'farm-based, grain-to-glass' operation. (Jeremiah Soucie)

Kinsip Distillery is including a small bottle of hand sanitizer free with every online order of spirits, and is now working with larger institutions looking to purchase the sanitizer in bulk quantities. 

Even before COVID-19, Ontario craft distilleries were struggling with their tax burden, Waterston said. Ironically, shifting to hand sanitizer just might turn out to be their saving grace.

"Even in times of good tourism, it's very difficult to have a sustainable craft distillery in Ontario," she said. "[Producing hand sanitizer might] support our business and allow the distillery to weather catastrophic events."

And if it doesn't, Michael Waterston believes it was still the right move for his family's business.

"It's definitely nice to be able to contribute," he said. "A lot of people out there are sticking their neck out, and we wanted to support them."

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