Distilleries turn spirits into sanitizer in response to COVID-19

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TOPO making sanitizer
Esteban McMahan (left) and Scott Maitland (right) provide buckets of hand sanitizer to Evan McIntyre of Axon, a public safety technology company who donated to TOPO’s cause.

Springtime at Top of the Hill brings to mind a very specific sound: the plop, plop, plop of fresh blueberries dropped into pints of blueberry wheat beer. Now, you can still get the beer, in the form of a crowler when you pull up curbside to the TOPO Organic Distillery just a few blocks away on West Franklin Street. But they’ve put a pause on the lizard chips and burgers at the restaurant and pivoted to hand sanitizer instead.

It’s a prized commodity in the wake of COVID-19. Health and government officials urge people to practice social distancing, frequently wash their hands and disinfect surfaces to combat the virus’ spread. Producing hand sanitizer is one way TOPO can contribute, and dozens of other distilleries nationwide are doing the same. 

“This by no means was a TOPO-only idea,” says Scott Maitland, the brewery and restaurant’s owner and founder. “The thing that is interesting about us, and why we have become important in this role, is the fact that we actually ferment our own alcohol. We make it all from scratch.”

Each distillery has taken a somewhat different path. Some distilleries chose to make sanitizing products and donate them to critical facilities and businesses. For instance, Durham Distillery has been producing and donating sanitizing solution to hospitality workers and also created hand sanitizers to donate to police and fire departments, emergency medical services, shelters and care centers. Durham-based Bedlam Vodka, which is distilled and bottled by Graybeard Distillery, also partnered with MedPharm and Avazym to create, test and distribute hand sanitizer; they donated 100 gallons of it to WakeMed in Raleigh on March 30. Others have sold their sanitizing products to the public as a way to keep their staff paid.

Bedlam Sanitizer Delivery
Durham’s Graybeard Distillery, MedPharm and Avazyme combined forces to create, test and distribute more than 100 gallons of quality-assured hand sanitizer. This sanitizer was supplied to WakeMed, a local health care provider.

TOPO Organic Distillery currently offers both, using the World Health Organization’s recipe for hand sanitizer. As of April 1, Scott says they’ve provided some 220 gallons of sanitizer to first responders based in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, all the way to Nashville, Tennessee. They’ve also sold sanitizers to local businesses who need it, but instead of funneling the money back into TOPO, they’ve used it to support their free program for health care workers and folks working on the front lines. 

“Honestly, it’s been a chaotic time, to say the least,” Scott says. “You’ve got everybody from the nonprofit hospice that helps children with cancer, [and] we’re giving it away for free, to the folks [who] are making masks who say they can buy it. We’re just trying to navigate all this stuff because all we want to do is do our part to stop the spread.”

Fortunately, due to a pre-coronavirus plan to move facilities to Pittsboro (which has since been scrapped), TOPO just so happened to ramp up alcohol production before the state’s stay-at-home orders. As such, the distillery can now focus on making hand sanitizer and selling the product it had stockpiled, rather than having to make drastic changes to its production process.

“There’s nothing lucky under the COVID umbrella,” Scott says. “We had made a bunch with the idea that we were going to be shutting down for awhile [to move], and that we had to get out in front of [pausing our operations]. So we are lucky to have a lot of our normal product already made and available.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean TOPO doesn’t still need help. The community around it has provided that in ways that Scott couldn’t have ever imagined. Lowe’s donated five-gallon buckets to the distillery, and even distillery partner Esteban McMahan’s vet at Carrboro Plaza Veterinary Clinic donated bottles of hydrogen peroxide – which is also sold out in a number of stores – for the first couple batches of sanitizer released during the last week in March.

“To me, the most rewarding part has been to see what our organization means to people,” Scott says. “And people were like, ‘Yeah, we want to make sure that the Top of the Hill is there. You’re an important part of Chapel Hill; you’re an important part of our lives.’ That’s been huge.”

TOPO Restaurant & Brewery is temporarily closed, but currently offers curbside pickup for brews and spirits at its distillery at 505 W. Franklin St., Monday-Saturday, noon-7 p.m. If you’re in need of hand sanitizer, TOPO offers 32 oz. bottles to the public. Email esteban@topodistillery.com for more information.

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Hannah Lee

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