HALIFAX -- Ironworks Distillery in Lunenburg, N.S., didn’t expect they would be making more hand sanitizer than alcohol these days. But like many alcohol distilleries across Nova Scotia, when they heard about the shortage of hand sanitizer in stores due to the COVID-19 outbreak, they felt a call to action.

“The nature of what we do means at any given time we have a certain amount of alcohol on hand,” says Lynne MacKay, co-owner of Ironworks Distillery. “It dawned on us as we looked around and saw hand sanitizer disappearing that it would be a smart and proactive social use of our alcohol.”

While Ironworks are still producing their alcohol products, they began producing hand sanitizer on Tuesday, with an initial batch of 300 bottles of their "Oh My Hand Sanitizer."

The bottles are being sold for $5 a bottle, with all profits going to the Lunenburg Fisherman's Memorial Hospital Auxiliary.

“It’s just something that made sense,” explains MacKay. “It’s a supply chain issue and we have a small solution that we could sell ourselves. It’s not economical for us, but it’s something we can’t not do.”

Since posting about it on social media Tuesday, MacKay has received many messages and calls asking where customers can purchase the hand sanitizer. 

“The last thing we did that blew up like this was when we made Texas Mickeys for Sidney Crosby’s birthday," says MacKay. 

MacKay wants to make clear that they aren’t transitioning completely into the hand-sanitizing business. The distillery is still open for business, refocusing on online orders, deliveries, pickups and sales at farmers markets in Lunenburg and Halifax.

Steinhart Distillery began producing hand sanitizer on Monday and has almost fully transitioned their business from distilling alcohol to distilling sanitizer. 

“All the bars in our area have shut down,” says owner Thomas Steinhart. “What were we going to do with everything shut down? We have no sales, no cash flow, but we still have employees and bills to pay, so we thought we would start making hand sanitizer.”

Thomas Steinhart

Thomas Steinhart, owner of Steinhart Distillery, poses with a bottle of their new hand sanitizer. (Steinhart Distillery)

Steinhart received a permit to produce sanitizer last Friday and are now offering two different products - a coconut oil-based sanitizer and an olive oil-based sanitizer. The sanitizers have no added chemicals and use lemon and orange essential oils for a pleasant scent.

Steinhart says that transitioning to sanitizer is allowing him to stay in business, and keep his staff of six workers employed through this downtime. But they are also giving back, with 20 per cent of all profits going to area food banks.

“Our first delivery was to the New Glasgow Food Bank and they cried,” explains Steinhart.

Compass Distillers in Halifax also heard the call to help out their community.

“There are vulnerable people in our community, who have supported us all along, and we want to do whatever we can to give back,” says Renae Perry, sales and marketing manager at Compass Distillers on Agricola Street.

Perry says the idea to produce their own sanitizer has been discussed over the past couple weeks, but there were some necessary steps before they began production.

They followed an approved recipe from the World Health Organization website and received approval from provincial and national government agencies to distribute an alcohol-based substance for free.

“It’s a healthcare emergency so we did not feel it was appropriate to charge people for this product. We really want to make sure that we do it correctly and do it for free,” explains Perry.

Perry says Compass is still in need of containers. They have 300 bottles but are hoping to receive more donations of unused bottles from businesses in their community.

“The more bottles we can get donated, the more sanitizer we can produce and give straight back into our community,” says Perry.

Compass expects to have their sanitizer available next week, and will be distributing the product via an e-mail list so as to adhere to social-distancing practices. They will also be giving first priority to any non-profit organizations or health-care professionals.

All three distilleries say they hope the coronavirus outbreak improves soon and they can get back to producing alcohol products. But as long as there is a need for alcohol-based sanitizers, they will continue this unexpected, but important change in production.