OCEANSIDE — Master distiller Nicholas Hammond never thought in his wildest dreams he’d be producing batches of hand sanitizer for local residents amid a national shortage of household sanitation products resulting from the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Hammond, owner of Pacific Coast Spirits in Oceanside, decided to put his years of craftsmanship and expertise toward helping the community while keeping his business afloat.
Pacific Coast, known for its small-batches of artisan vodka, whiskey and blue agave tequila, is now manufacturing hand sanitizer — essentially “high-octane” alcohol combined with hydrogen peroxide and glycerol.
“It’s wild,” Hammond said. “I never thought we could go from making bourbon and whiskey to hand sanitizer. We’re just trying to find a way to survive and keep the roof over our heads.”
The situation became increasingly dire after San Diego County health officials ordered the closure of all restaurants and bars on March 17, in an effort to curb the spread of the virus, placing a large majority of food-service industry employees out of work.
Like many other businesses in North County, Hammond was forced to lay off nearly all of his staff as a result of the sweeping orders.
Rob Harrah, a bar manager at Pacific Coast, is one of a few employees assisting with curbside sales of the sanitizer, wearing gloves and maintaining a safe distance from customers. Harrah expressed a sense of gratitude to be working during the crisis.
“Right now, I’m whatever they need me to be,” Harrah said.
The process for making hand sanitizer is similar to the distillery’s vodka production, except the alcohol’s proof is 80 percent, significantly higher than ordinary drinking liquor.
In addition to Pacific Coast, a handful of local distilleries are also working on producing hand sanitizer to meet local demand, including Vista-based companies Seven Cave Spirits and Misadventure & Co., and Liberty Call in Barrio Logan.
“All of the distilleries around here in San Diego, Southern California and across the nation are working to produce it,” Hammond said.
And with grocery-store runs on everything from toilet paper to disinfectant wipes, the public demand for hand sanitizer keeps growing. Since making the announcement, lines of eager people have been forming in the parking lot at Pacific Coast to purchase a large 25-ounce (750 ml) bottle of hand sanitizer.
Due to a nationwide shortage of two-ounce plastic bottles as a result of increased hand sanitizer production, Hammond said Pacific Coast is currently offering the larger glass bottles until smaller containers become available.
Oceanside resident Cynthia Mendoza came to Pacific Coast for the first time on March 24, after watching a local news segment featuring the company’s impromptu business venture.
Mendoza has searched for hand sanitizer at several large stores around the city, including Ralph’s, CVS, Target and Costco, with no success.
“Hand sanitizer is necessary,” Mendoza said. “And I just can’t find it anywhere else.”
Currently, Pacific Coast produces 50-gallon batches and each bottle is filled by hand. Depending on supplies, Hammond said the distillery is capable of producing up to four 55-gallon drums of hand sanitizer per day.
If demand continues to rise, Hammond is prepared to start making batches in larger fermentation tanks to produce 500 gallons of sanitizer at a time.
The most impactful health restriction for restaurants and breweries is social distancing, which requires individuals to keep at least six feet of distance between others, making any type of public dining or drinking experience impossible.
“It’s changed our entire landscape,” Hammond said. “We are a restaurant and distillery. But with social distancing, customers can no longer come to our building to socialize.”
Stepping in to fill the shortage of hand sanitizer wasn’t a difficult decision for Hammond, who said giving back to the community is one of his company’s ethos.
While there may be room for long-term manufacturing of hand sanitizer once the coronavirus pandemic subsides, Hammond is eager to return to his passion of distilling spirits serving the community.
“We’ll continue to produce as fast as we can as long as we can create the alcohol and get the necessary ingredients,” Hammond said. “But I’m looking forward to returning to business as usual and getting all of my employees back to work.”
If you are interested in purchasing hand sanitizer, spirits, food and cocktails for curbside pickup, please visit Pacific Coast Spirits website or click here. Additionally, to make a donation to the Pacific Coast Spirits fundraiser supporting its staff during this crisis, please click here for the GoFundMe campaign.