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Taking a break from vodka: Distilleries making hand sanitizer during COVID-19 crisis

Coronavirus: Montreal-area distillers take a break from vodka to help fight COVID-19
WATCH: Montreal-area distilleries are joining in the fight against COVID-19. Some are starting to switch their alcohol production to make hand sanitizer instead.

Distiller Paul Cirka just received an enormous shipment of corn at his distillery in south-west Montreal. Normally, he would use it to still into alcohol to create his bespoke gin and vodka at his Cirka Distillery.

But with the COVID-19 crisis in full swing, he’s shifting his focus, and is working to create antiseptic instead, in a bid to help with a massive uptake in demand for hand sanitizers.

“Everyone here went look, if people need more hand sanitizer, we have the ability to do it, so we started the process immediately,” Cirka, president of the distillery, said.  “We are working around the clock to produce as much as we can.”

Cirka already stills his own alcohol which he uses to make various spirits, which are only 40 per cent alcohol. To make an antiseptic, the levels must be much higher. So Cirka is creating an almost pure form of alcohol to use as a hand sanitizer.

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“We can produce high alcohol levels that we don’t proof down to anything else and we effectively turn that high alcohol into a sanitizer,” Cirka said.

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The federal government fast-tracked approval of his product. He’s following a recipe recommended by the World Health Organization.

“That is important because it uses a high alcohol level and the reason for that is to make sure the disinfectant properties are active,” he said.

Distilleries around the world are stepping up and producing hand sanitizer. That’s because a surge in demand during the COVID-19 crisis has caused a scarcity of the product.

Another Quebec company, Pur Vodka, is also starting to produce the antiseptic. They are buying pure alcohol in bulk and adding various ingredients like glycerin to produce the antiseptic.

“We are all in the same boat, it’s war out there,” said Pur Vodka president Nicolas Duvernois. ‘Everyone who can do a difference must do a difference, and that is how we chose to use some of our products to help.”

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Experts say ultimately washing your hands thoroughly with simply soap and water is your best bet for cleaning hands. Antiseptic cleansers are useful when the sink isn’t around.

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“If you are out and shopping and you have touched things, when you come out of the store, that is the time when you use hand sanitize,” said McGill University professor Dr. Joe Schwarcz. “There is no question that hand sanitizer, when properly used, when you cover your hands with it totally, it will eliminate the virus from your hands.”

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Cirka expects his first batch of 5,000 bottles of sanitzer to be ready by next week. He’s donating his first batches in a bid to help.

“We are working with Santé Montréal, making sure that police, firefighters, frontline workers have as much access to sanitizers as they possibly can.”

He says he’ll get back to making gin and vodka when the crisis is past its peak.