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Corona and a shot: DeKalb distillery enlists in the war on coronavirus by switching to sanitizer production, will donate supply to the front lines

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DeKALB – It may not be the type of alcohol needed to take the edge off after a long day serving overcrowded hospitals amid a viral pandemic, but to area first responders and medical providers, what Whiskey Acres Distilling Co. is brewing is liquid gold.

The distillery announced this week it plans to make hand sanitizer as the coronavirus pandemic causes stores across the nation to run dry of the vital item. The distillery's whiskey operations and visitors center have closed temporarily through the rest of month, and it's putting that downtime to use.

The business is operated on land owned since 1941 by father-and-son duo Jim and Jamie Walters, who said Thursday their hope is to prioritize workers at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital and DeKalb County first responders.

"We've agreed to donate basically our entire supply to the front lines," Walters said.

The distillery was approved Wednesday by the U.S. Tax and Trade Bureau and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to convert its distillery to make hand sanitizer, using a special formula approved and passed on from the World Health Organization. By the end of next week, Walters said he hopes to have several thousand bottles of hand sanitizer to donate to Kishwaukee Hospital and countywide paramedics and police officers who respond to 911 calls.

Walters said that, though they'll focus on giving local and only to hospitals and first responders instead of individual requests, the need seems so great that they're already getting calls from 100 miles away.

"I was quite surprised by that," Walters said. "When we first envisioned this, we thought it was a nice thing to do. Little did we know until the last 24 hours what kind of extreme demand."

Mass panic buying has caused the item to become a scarcity at a time when health care workers most need it.

On Thursday, the Illinois Health and Hospital Association issued a plea calling for employers in industries such as veterinarians, dentists and others to donate extra supplies to the state's more than 200 hospitals to protect health care workers as they care or COVID-19 patients.

They called for donations of face masks or N95s, too.

"Hospitals all over the state are in jeopardy of potentially running out of critically needed protective medical supplies,” A.J. Wilhelmi, Illinois Health and Hospital Association President and CEO, said in a news release. “With continuing uncertainties about global and U.S. supplies of face masks, we urgently need to find alternative supplies, no matter where they are."

Much like making whiskey, distilling alcohol into a solution necessary for hand sanitizer to kill germs requires an 80% alcohol by volume, or 160-proof solution, Walters said. Their whiskey is normally 140 proof.

"Then it needs to be blended or denatured with a solution of hydrogen peroxide and glycerin, as well as a little bit of distilled water," he said. "It's sprayable, different than aloe vera or gels. So we follow that formula and we're off to the races."

The distillery doesn't have a bottling line set up for spray bottles, so they'll have to fill several thousand 2-ounce (pocket size for first responders) and 16-ounce (for counter tops in hospitals) bottles by hand.

Walters isn't sure how long Whiskey Acres will be able to keep up a steady supply of hand sanitizer, though they'll start manufacturing next week, and have it ready to hand off a few days later. They'll coordinate drop-off through the DeKalb County Health Department and the hospital.

"We don't have anymore supplies," he said. "We are all running into supply chain bottlenecks. One thing we could really use help with is bulk-type quantities of hydrogen peroxide and glycerin. And the containers are extremely hard to find."

Walters welcomed donations of those items, though he warned he'd only accept them in bulk so they can continue to produce hand sanitizer in efficient amounts. Whiskey Acres bought the first round of supplies on their own dime, he said.

When asked what can be done to aid their efforts, Walters cracked a modest joke.

"What they can do to help in the immediate future, is when they're picking up their milk and toilet paper, ask for a bottle of Whiskey Acres," Walters said wryly. "Take it home and have a cocktail at the end of the evening."

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