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cornell AgritechChris Gerling, senior extension associate, checks the still located at Cornell AgriTech’s food science pilot plant in Geneva.
In the battle to keep front-line health care workers, first responders and essential employees safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 40 craft distilleries in New York state have stopped producing their signature spirits.  Instead, distillers have turned to making a much-needed commodity: hand sanitizer.

"For distilleries, it's a fascinating landscape right now," said Chris Gerling, senior extension associate in food science at Cornell AgriTech in Geneva, New York.

Gerling is helping distilleries across New York get answers to questions, find sources for sanitizer ingredients, make supply chain connections, locate affordable packaging – and learn new processes and policies.

"It's been an interesting pivot for distilleries into this world," he said. "I have been parsing regulations and trying to keep distillers safe. Making hand sanitizer is not for hobbyists; this is for professionals."

In the first half of March as pandemic fear grew, consumers wiped retail shelves clean and health care groups could not order enough. Distillers quickly realized that they could shore up the shortage.

At Five & 20 Spirits and Brewing in Westfield, New York, which makes bourbon, rye and limoncello, Mario Mazza, the distillery's vice president and general manager, said he began manufacturing hand sanitizer around March 20 and started packaging it last week.

"We can't make ventilators, and we can't make masks," Mazza said, "but we can make something useful."

Packaging sanitizer in 1- and 5-gallon sizes, Five & 20 has already supplied about 600 to 700 gallons of hand sanitizer to nursing facilities, local hospitals, local fire and police departments, and Meals on Wheels.

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