Distillers are emerging as heroes during these stressful days, and not just because they’re helping people take the edge off.

In response to a nationwide shortage of hand sanitizer amid the coronavirus outbreak, Colorado distilleries such as Lee Spirits in Monument felt “compelled to help,” says co-owner Ian Lee.

“I would say we were flabbergasted at the need for the product,” Lee said. “Who are we to sit back when we have the ability to do something a lot of people can’t?”

Lee Spirits and around 30 other distilleries across the state, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, are now in the hand sanitizer business. In most cases, they’re not selling the stuff. Sanitizers are being donated to first responders, police and fire departments, hospitals and other organizations. Leftovers are going to the public.

Makers of vodka and whiskey are in a unique position to answer the critical call for sanitizer. They regularly produce 190-proof ethanol, one of just a few ingredients in the World Health Organization-approved recipe for hand sanitizer.

In addition to high-proof ethanol, which kills the virus and, in distilling terms, is basically a moonshine, the recipe calls for hydrogen peroxide and glycerol.

Lee Spirits recently dropped off 900 bottles of sanitizer to El Paso County Public Health to be distributed. The remaining bottles will be available for free at the distillery’s tasting room, Brooklyn’s on Boulder Street. Bottles of other Lee Spirits products will be available for sale throughout the week, too.

It’s worth pointing out, Lee said, that the sanitizer is not for drinking.

“I will say, our hand sanitizer does not taste like our gin,” he said.

3 Hundred Days of Shine, another Monument distillery, has been donating one bottle of sanitizer for every bottle sold.

Axe and the Oak, based in Colorado Springs, is also crafting the cleaning supply, but is struggling to get materials such as bottles and labels.

“We never expected to do this in a million years,” Casey Ross, a co-owner said. “You never think you’re going to do something like this. It’s all kind out of a movie.”

But here they are, mixing about 25-gallons of the product per batch. That's not as much as the larger-scale distilleries, Ross said. And he expects the bottles they make available to go "super, super fast."

“We’re a small-batch distillery,” he said. “We’re going to do what we can with what we have.”

This all comes while distilleries have been forced to temporarily close their tasting rooms and cancel tours. 

So, making sanitizer is keeping employees at work and busy, says Mark Kleckner, of Woody Creek Distillers in Basalt. Woody Creek has been “cranking out 2,000 liters per week,” he said.

“It seemed like a logical transition,” he said.

The demand, he said, has been "nonstop" and "relentless."

"Not 10 minutes goes by that someone doesn’t stop by the distillery asking for hand sanitizer," he said. 

His priority is getting sanitizer to health care workers and first responders, he said.

Woody Creek and other distillers have extra motivation to slow the spread of the virus. They continue to lose business with restaurants and bars being shut down.

“It benefits us because the sooner we can mitigate the spread of this, the sooner we can get back to normal,” Kleckner said. “That way, everybody, including us can get back to doing what we were doing before.”

He has already been making sanitizer full time for two weeks.

“I’ll be glad to get back to full-time whiskey,” Kleckner said. “Until that time, we’re thrilled to help everybody out.”

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