Connecticut Distillers Turn To Hand Sanitizer As Shortages Continue | Connecticut Public Radio
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Connecticut Distillers Turn To Hand Sanitizer As Shortages Continue

Mar 30, 2020

One of the very first things to fly off the shelves as people began to worry about the coronavirus was hand sanitizer. As the weeks go by, stories of stockpiling and price gouging have emerged -- but so have stories of innovation and ingenuity. 

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Some of Connecticut’s small craft distilleries have provided one of those tales, ending production of spirits like gin and vodka and turning instead to making 140 proof alcohol hand sanitizer.

Fifth State Distillery in Bridgeport is one such facility.

“It’s been a little crazy, but I’m glad that we can be here to help,” said owner Bridget Schulten. She and her husband, distiller Rob Schulten, began this business four years ago. They now have five employees.

“It’s been a passion project for us, it’s been really fun, and then all of a sudden it all changes,” she said. 

When Gov. Ned Lamont ordered restaurants to move to takeout service only, Schulten feared for the future of her business. 

“I frankly thought -- my first thought -- when they were closing down restaurants, is ‘oh no, the restaurants aren’t buying, the stores aren’t buying, then we won’t be selling,’” she said.

Now, instead of bars and restaurants, she’s selling to hospitals, nursing homes, towns, utility companies and even U.S. Post Office outlets across five states -- anyplace where people have had to remain at work, with employers who need to keep their employees safe. 

Owner Bridget Schulten applies labels she made to bottles of sanitizer manufactured at her distillery.
Credit Joe Amon/Connecticut Public/NENC

“Everybody is so grateful and thankful that they can get product,” Schulten said. “I’m just glad that we can be there to help.”

Changing their business model has not been without complications. They’re following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the formulation of the most effective product. Within a week and a half, the advice on minimum alcohol level changed from 60 proof, first to 80 proof, and now to 140 proof.  

“We’ve had to change pretty much everything,” Rob Schulten said. “It’s for a good cause.”

Distiller Rob Schulten and his son Sam add a 100-pound bag of cane sugar to yeast. They have been working day and night to meet demand. Instead of mashing corn for spirits, they mix regular cane sugar with yeast to produce alcohol. They then distill - or separate - the water from the alcohol.
Credit Joe Amon/Connecticut Public/NENC

And he said they haven’t stopped selling their original range. “We still have our product out there for sale, so a lot of our long-term customers have come and bought a hand sanitizer and a spirit -- so they take care of their insides and their outsides!”

Fifth State now sells a 750 ml bottle of hand sanitizer -- that’s the size of a standard bottle of wine -- for $35. They’ve been focusing on distribution by the case to larger customers, but they also offer single bottles for curbside pickup.

“People have driven up to buy a bottle curbside, and they say, ‘We didn’t even know you were here,’” Bridget Schulten said. “And I tell them, ‘Please remember us and come back and buy some gin and vodka when we’re all well again!’”

Rob Schulten raises the temperature of the dephlegmator on the distilling column, a device that condenses the vapor. Schulten previously worked at General Electric as a chemical engineer for 25 years.
Credit Joe Amon/Connecticut Public/NENC
During the distilling process, small bubbles of alcohol get larger and burst, producing vapor that will condense back into a liquid, producing the sanitizer.
Credit Joe Amon/Connecticut Public/NENC
Distiller Rob Schulten is watched by his son Sam as they proof a batch of sanitizer with a hydrometer to measure the alcohol content. To comply with federal regulations, Fifth State produces sanitizer that is 140 proof, 70% alcohol by volume.
Credit Joe Amon/Connecticut Public/NENC
Fifth State Distillery owner Bridget Schulten waits for customers who have put in orders for sanitizer. She is thankful for the people in her community who are supporting small businesses during these hard times.
Credit Joe Amon/Connecticut Public/NENC
Bottled sanitizer is ready for pickup. The product can be used as a hand wash or to sanitize surfaces.
Credit Joe Amon/Connecticut Public/NENC
Tobias Watson of Bridgeport walks away from the curbside pickup table with a bottle of sanitizer. Many recent customers are discovering the distillery through its sanitizer, which it's been manufacturing for about two weeks.
Credit Joe Amon/Connecticut Public/NENC