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Hawaii companies give a hand (sanitizer) to essential workers

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                                Ian Brooks, co-founder of Ko‘olau Distillery, made hand sanitizer at the company’s Kailua facility.


    Ian Brooks, co-founder of Ko‘olau Distillery, made hand sanitizer at the company’s Kailua facility.

Hand sanitizer has been in high demand during the COVID-19 health crisis, so two local businesses are diverting their manufacturing process to meet the needs of health care workers and other essential users.

Ko‘olau Distillery, a Kailua-based company that makes whiskey, and Aloha Green Apothecary, a medical-marijuana distributor that also makes other cannabis-based products, have started to make hand sanitizer. The distillery will give it to health-care workers, first responders and essential civil service workers, while Aloha Green will supply its patients at first, then other essential workers as it ramps up production.

Neither company has plans to sell to the general public, which has been snapping up sanitizer in such quantity that retailers have had to limit sales.

Eric Dill, co-founder and CEO of Ko‘olau Distillery, said it was a difficult decision to switch production from a profitable whiskey business to free hand sanitizer. He got the idea from a distillery in Indiana, Hotel Tango, run by a close friend, who also made the switch.

“We’re so small, and we don’t have any employees,” he said of the family-owned-and-operated business. “The distillation process is the same, but we’re dedicating our man-hours to (hand sanitizer production). We’re purchasing the bottles to put it into. We’re purchasing the other ingredients on top of that.”

Ko‘olau typically makes oak barrel-aged bourbon, using as much local corn as possible, along with malted barley. However, in response to consumer demand, the distillery recently started making moonshine, which uses sugar. That has been an advantage in making hand sanitizer, as moonshine has a higher percentage of alcohol than whiskey. According to the World Health Organization, hand sanitizer must be at least 60% alcohol to be effective.

Ko‘olau is combining its alcohol with distilled water, glycerol and other ingredients to produce a liquid hand sanitizer, which is more effective than gel sanitizers because it evaporates quicker and kills germs and bacteria more effectively, Dill said. The company also benefited from a large donation of spray bottles from the skincare company Kokua Sun Care.

The first batch of hand sanitizer was made on Thursday, and while production of some whiskey will continue, the distillery’s focus will be to produce sanitizer.

“We’re going to start making alcohol solely for the purpose of making sanitizer,” said Dill, who retired from the Marines just three weeks ago to head up the company. “It was a tough decision, but it’s for the greater good.”

Aloha Green does not produce alcohol, but its laboratory receives large shipments of alcohol products used to create tinctures, oils and lozenges with cannabis, said Ty Cheng, a company spokesman. “We often have a lot of chemicals on site,” he said, “so we thought, why not use some of our ethanols and alcohols to produce sanitizer?”

The company got the idea after learning that LVMH, a French cosmetics manufacturer, is using its perfume factories to make hand sanitizer. “We’ve asked our suppliers to increase the amount of base alcohol that they’re supplying us,” Cheng said. “It’s quite an easy process to produce that product, so we thought we should do it for our patients, because they’re at risk.”

Aloha Green has already produced 10,000 50-milliliter bottles for its patients. “We work closely with the fire department, EMTs and police,” Cheng said. “So we’ll be producing it in gallon buckets that we’ll give away as well.”

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