WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) — It took about two rings for Joe Tappe to answer the phone the morning of March 18.
And he kept it brief because he was busy.
“We’re open,” Tappe said. “Come on by.”
He clicked off the call and stooped back over a cart covered in plastic containers. About 20 minutes before, his counterpart Don Jenkins had leaned into a metal drum, mixing its contents with a drill before making his way over to help Tappe bottle their newest product.
The two distillers at Broad Branch Distillery put their liquor-making skills to use for the good of the public: Making hand sanitizer to give out for free to combat the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the nation. The ethanol produced for whiskey can be converted to battle bacteria in the amount of time it takes to mix a stiff drink.
"Just because we’ve got this sitting here and it needs to happen,” Tappe said. “There’s a need. There's a role that we can play.”
Broad Branch is one of a few distilleries trying to curb the shortage of hygiene products, and at least one of two in the Triad with Old Nick Williams Farm and Distillery in Lewisville. Broad Branch is focused on giving out its santizer free to the public, up to two bottles per person, while asking for donations to the Lynne H. Berry School Buddies Fund.
Old Nick Williams is opting to donate its cleaning products, along with Durham Distillery and others, to hospitality businesses. Zeb Williams, owner of Old Nick Williams, said it exemplifies the quality people in the local liquor business.
“We’ve got a lot of good players that want to help and share information,” Williams said, “and help do the right thing, and it shows in times of need.”
Tappe and Jenkins said they hatched the idea to make hand sanitizer over the weekend. They used March 16 to check the proper channels – mainly with the N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission – to make sure they could give the sanitizer away. Tappe said they also worked on the label and looked at container options.
A local company, Sessions Specialty in Lewisville, donated 60-milliliter spray bottles to Broad Branch to start distributing on March 18.
And the production of hand sanitizer lines up perfectly with the process. During the initial distillation phase, a non-potable liquid is produced called “the head.” Normally, Broad Branch just gets rid of it since it can't be consumed.
But the head can be converted to hand sanitizer by adding a couple of ingredients. Broad Branch adds water and glycol. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mandates that hand sanitizer must be made of 60 percent ethanol, or 120 proof. But if the proof is too high, like 160 or 170 proof, the alcohol evaporates too quickly and doesn’t kill the bacteria. Jenkins said Broad Branch’s hand sanitizer was around 136 proof, roughly 67 percent ethanol based.
Broad Branch had bottles produced by noon, when Chuck and Ginny Rutter walked in for the first samples. Chuck Rutter and Broad Branch founder John Fragakis have been friends since the mid-1970s. The couple noticed the absence of hand sanitizer in every grocery store they walked through during the last week.
This was at least a way to keep a little cleaner while helping the community.
“It was a dual purpose to buy hand sanitizer and help out a good cause,” Ginny said as the Rutters made their way toward the door.
In all, Tappe said Broad Branch gave away around 300 bottles during their first day of distribution. Williams said they had one or two companies reach out, but the clamp down on restaurants in the state probably thinned the initial rush. But Williams wanted local companies to know that they were there to help.
Broad Branch, like all others in the service industry, had to shut down its tasting room and tours. And because restaurants are unable to serve dine-in customers, that’s fewer places for Broad Branch whiskeys to be sold.
As they navigate this tough financial time, Tappe said the Broad Branch crew just wanted to do some good.
“We can do something while we’re making liquor besides just keep people company in their homes while they’re stuck,” Tappe said.