Area winery, distiller produce hand sanitizer
FINGER LAKES--About four weeks ago, Mark Karasz and his fiancée Lynn Williams, a nurse, were returning home on a short car-trip from visiting family. Williams, who sees patients in their homes, needed hand sanitizer and they stopped several times so she could get some. But each place they stopped, they found the shelves had been emptied. The two began considering options.
Karasz, owner/winemaker at Rock Stream Vineyards (162 Fir Tree Point Road, Rock Stream), uses a small still to make some of his products. As they drove home, they researched ingredients, recipes and places to get bottles. By the time they returned home, they'd ordered what they needed and were ready to get to work.
In order to make the sanitizer, Karasz had to sacrifice a planned vintage varietal with quite a lot of wine. His customers will now need to wait several more years to try his dry Niagara. "It takes approximately 1.5 gallons of bulk wine--about 7.4 bottles of wine--to make the alcohol for one 8-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer," he explains. "The wine would otherwise be bottled, but we believe it's more important to help the community in this time of need," he says.
The bottles are expensive, costing about $1 each, when he can get them. He's had to source bottles from a variety of places, as supplies become scarce. He's also bought aloe vera and tea tree oil to buffer the alcohol and help soothe hands washed and sanitized frequently. "No one's giving us a break on the raw materials and they're getting harder to find," he says.
The process can also be time-consuming. Karasz's still will process 110 gallons of wine at a time to create six to seven gallons of 92 percent alcohol distillate, but he has to work slowly to achieve the purity he needs. This means he's often spending 12 hours a day babysitting the still.
"We've made a lot, more than 600 bottles so far," he says, adding they're becoming as widely-traveled as his wine. Every day he sends out five to seven cases of sanitizer, taking another hit on the cost of shipping it. He gives discounts to health care providers and facilities and also sold 50 bottles to the FAA group on Long Island. But when a distributor wanted to order several thousand bottles he had to refuse that quantity, in order to keep his customers here supplied. Some of his wine customers are getting sanitizer as well when they stop by to pick up their wine orders.
"The nice thing is that we have the product and we're able to supply it until we run out of bottles," he says. "We're mostly selling locally but because we had a Facebook ad, we've had customers from as far away as California, Nevada, Ohio, everywhere." Facebook recently dis-allowed the advertisement on the principle of not wanting businesses to profit from this crisis--even though as Karasz describes it, he's losing quite a bit of money in producing and sending out the sanitizer.
"Once it [sanitizer] gets back on the shelves in New York, we'll be able to go back to selling wine and spirits," Karasz says.
"I never thought I'd be making hand sanitizer, but there's such a need," says Brian McKenzie, owner of Finger Lakes Distilling (4676 State Route 414, Burdett). "It's a lot different than making whiskey." He started production about a week ago. "It's been a challenge navigating everything and figuring out the regulatory side of things and sourcing ingredients."
McKenzie's sanitizer is not for sale--everything he's made has been donated to hospitals and health care providers. He says the big challenge has been sourcing ingredients and containers. His recipe is different from Karasz's. Hospitals have been receiving the sanitizer in gallon jugs. Creating the alcohol in his large commercial still is not the problem, but it's taken long hours of his time to learn about regulations--the CDC has updated these--compile requests and create a product with a company already lean-staffed while it's closed to the general public. His remaining distillery staff currently puts several days every week into producing sanitizer.
"I'm hoping we can get to a point where we can have it available to people locally," McKenzie says. "We just want to adhere to the standard and not get creative with it. It's effective, and that's what's most important right now."
Despite the challenges, Karasz is cheerful. "I'm enjoying the fact that I'm able to help everyone," he says. "People want to stay healthy, which I want everyone to do. One person puts hand sanitizer on and they're not transmitting to the next person. I'm spraying my hands all day long. Maybe I won't get it myself, but I won't give it to the next person."