As It Happens

Nova Scotia distillers shift production from booze to hand sanitizer

As hand sanitizer flows off the shelves at many grocery stores and pharmacies around the country due to the coronavirus pandemic, distilleries in Nova Scotia are seizing the opportunity to help by brewing up some of their own.

'We have completely stopped distilling anything [else],' says Thomas Steinhart of Steinhart Distillery

The Steinhart Distillery in Antigonish County, N.S., is using its facilities and alcohol to produce hand sanitizer during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by Thomas Steinhart)
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Transcript

As hand sanitizer flies off the shelves at many grocery stores and pharmacies around the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic, distilleries in Nova Scotia are seizing the opportunity to help by brewing up some of their own.

Thomas Steinhart, owner of Steinhart Distillery in Antigonish, N.S., says he was already worried about dropping liquor sales as a result of social distancing measures recommended by the province and decided to venture into something new.

The transition from making booze to making hand sanitizer has been "crazy," he said, and "the phone hasn't stopped ringing yet" from people requesting the disinfectant.

"We have completely stopped distilling anything [else]. We are just doing hand sanitizer," Steinhart told As It Happens host Carol Off. "We have a second product line going, blend it in house, just like we make rum."

There were 648 confirmed or presumptive cases of COVID-19 in Canada as of Wednesday afternoon, with nine deaths. Presumptive cases are those who tested positive at the local level, but whose results have not yet been confirmed at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg.

Thomas Steinhart, owner of Steinhart Distillery in Antigonish, N.S., holds up a bottle of hand sanitizer. (Submitted by Thomas Steinhart)

To make the hand sanitizer, Steinhart and his team mix alcohol with olive or coconut oil to "keep your skin soft," then add essential oils to "stop people from drinking it," he said. 

The mixture is kept at above 70 per cent ethanol in order to kill viruses, he said. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, disinfectants must contain between 60 to 90 per cent alcohol to be effective against viruses. 

It is then packaged into 100- and 200-millilitre bottles and sold for $15, with 20 per cent of the proceeds going toward the local food bank, he said. 

Steinhart says he has been forced to limit the amount sold because "people just want to buy everything we have."

"[Bigger companies] don't care much ... but I'm telling everybody the same. Everybody gets [the same] amount," he said. 

Halifax distillery also 'stepping up' 

Across the province in Halifax, Compass Distillery is giving it away for free.

Distiller Alex Wrathell says it only made sense to start producing hand sterilizer "given that there's a lot of shortages here in the province."

"We're a producer of spirits and we produce vodka to make our own gin here onsite. Vodka is distilled to 95 per cent ethanol, and high-proof ethanol is one of the main ingredients for hand sanitizer," Wrathell told CBC Nova Scotia. 

Alex Wrathell, a distiller at Compass Distillery in Halifax, now makes hand sanitizer instead of booze. (Rob Short/CBC)

The distillery is following World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for locally produced sanitizer.

Renae Perry, also from Compass Distillery, said an email list has been set up to help facilitate the distribution of the sanitizer around the community.

People can also request it via their Facebook page, she said. 

"We're putting our highest priority on people who work in the health-care industry, non-profits that are seeking it and those most at risk," Perry said.  

Renae Perry of Compass Distillery says they're giving the product away for free, which a special focus on health-care workers, NGOs and vulnerable people. (Rob Short/CBC)

Perry says all of the province's distilleries should be "stepping up" by shifting their production to hand sanitizer while business is down because of COVID-19. 

"This is an opportunity for all of us to help our community. We have the alcohol. We're not in it to make a profit. We just want to get it out to people and do it for free."


Written by Adam Jacobson with files from Brooklyn Currie and Ruth Davenport at CBC Nova Scotia. Interview with Thomas Steinhart produced by Morgan Passi and Lindsay Tsuji.

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