Sonoma’s Prohibition Spirits Distillery switches to hand sanitizer production

Distillers across the country are switching from spirits to hand sanitizer. 

Since alcohol is the main ingredient, and sanitizer is in extremely short supply, it's a way for idled operations to be productive. 

Even brewing giant Anheuser-Busch, maker of Budweiser, is retooling its operation to help with the shortage. 

And in Sonoma, a small-batch spirits maker has ramped up to a few thousand bottles a week. 

"We've got pure alcohol coming off the still, at about 165 proof right now," said Fred Groth, co-founder of Prohibition Spirits Distillery, with wife Amy. 

Prohibition Spirits had to close its tasting room this month- like everyone else- to help fight the spread of coronavirus.

But another door opened when the need for hand sanitizer emerged. 

"At first, it was a fun thing, now it's more a necessity, where people say 'there isn't any, we need it!'"

At the company's warehouse, people can purchase sanitizer (or spirits) at the door. 

They immediately notice, it doesn't have the antiseptic smell of many products. 

"Essential oils, the scents of key lime margarita, lemon drop, old fashioned, and pina colada," explained Groth. 

"Fun flavors so when you smell them you feel like you're on vacation, not in these terrible times."

Two bicyclists who stopped by Tuesday afternoon purchased both liquor and sanitizer. 

"You converted to the moment, the need of the moment, that's cool," observed one. 
It's an assembly line- family style.

Sixteen-year-old Bella fills bottles, and twin sons Cooper and Alex, 14, attach caps and labels

"We're so happy to help and it's pretty amazing how it just rolled into helping people who are in need," said Amy Groth. 

Half-gallon containers, without the boozy scent, are also produced in bulk for shipping to health care providers and government agencies.

"We're hearing requests from counties, large hospitals, state agencies, and I always thought there was a sanitizer stockpile somewhere in a bunker," said Fred, surprised at the widespread need. 

When regulators eased restrictions and asked distillers to help, hundreds pivoted to producing sanitizer. 

The formula is simple; it's mostly alcohol- plus water, glycerin and peroxide. 

"To see so many people popping up to do it, I think that's pretty remarkable," said Amy.   

And the cause has made the close family, even closer.    

"If I was just sitting in my house every day just contemplating, things would be kind of tough," admitted Fred.

"But every day we get up and we're busting it, working seven days a week turning out hand sanitizer."

At $6 a bottle, sanitizer sales don't begin to rival the usual product line: fine brandies, whiskeys, rums and vodkas. 

But it doesn't hurt either. 

"We're trying to get by and with our tasting room closed, we would have been making zero so least we can bring some money in," said Fred. 

Prohibition has also donated sanitizer to first responders and school food giveaways during the pandemic. 

"Usually when you sell spirits, people are grateful but this is so emotional, it's overwhelming," said Amy.