There’s never been a time where keeping hands clean has been so important from a societal standpoint.
As the coronavirus started to spread across the United States, store shelves were cleared out of cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer as many worried how easily the COVID-19 virus itself could jump from person to person. While medical professionals said soap and water was the best way to keep hands clean, when a sink wasn’t nearby, hand sanitizer became the weapon of choice — but the supply was not able to keep up with demand, turning hand sanitizer into a luxury item.
Many stepped up to help replenish that supply — even Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who had prison inmates bottle a sanitizer he branded “NYS Clean.”
David and Dorit Nahmias also wanted to help. The North Riverdale couple owns Nahmias et Fils Distillery, a Yonkers operation that has produced a whiskey and a Moroccan Jewish brandy known as mahia for the past eight years. But just a few weeks ago, production at the distillery changed dramatically as the Nahmiases transformed their operation into a hand sanitizer factory.
It came with a little help from Sid Blauner, a Yonkers real estate investor, who also is co-founder of Lionheart Leadership Academy, a youth basketball program for teenagers in the Bronx and Westchester County.
“Sid Blauner was the initial investor in the hand sanitizer production that really allowed for this business to take off,” Dorit said.
Nahmias et Fils is not the first distillery to step up in times of hardship, although it wasn’t always by choice. During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson ordered alcohol content to be lowered in sprits so that more of the grain used to create the alcohol could instead become part of the war effort. To help finance that war, Wilson also added an excise tax on alcohol, not long before the 18th Amendment would begin a decade-long period of Prohibition.
Whether it is the COVID-19 pandemic or World War I, distilleries have done their part to contribute during troublesome times, the Nahmiases said.
Nahmias et Fils is using a hand sanitizer recipe distributed by the World Health Organization, and markets the sanitizer through approvals of both the Food and Drug Administration and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Dorit isn’t sure how long they’ll continue producing hand sanitizer, but their federal approvals allow them to continue until the end of the year, if necessary.
Why are distilleries stepping up in the battle to keep hand sanitizer on the shelves? One main factor is that distilleries like Nahmias et Fils possess a key component in its production: ethanol. The sanitizer made at the Yonkers facility is 80 percent ethanol, along with glycerol, hydrogen peroxide and distilled water.
Ethanol is created by a process of “denaturing” alcohol that is typically produced for the kinds of spirits the Nahmias distillery would bottle. The process typically involves adding chemicals and such that allow the alcohol to retain its sanitizing effects, but can’t be consumed by people.
“The denatured alcohol used is good for the hand sanitizer since it is unfit for drinking,” Dorit said.
Dorit still makes trips up to the Saw Mill River Road operations to deal with deliveries throughout the Bronx, Westchester County, and even upstate. Distilleries are still open because the governor has deemed them “essential” during the coronavirus crisis. However, the nature of sales has drastically changed.
“A lot of our sales come from bars and liquor stores,” Dorit said. “A big part of liquor store sales is the ability for customers to sample our products.”
In the era of social distancing, going out to bars and sampling products at liquor stores are unachievable activities. Although Nahmias et Fils is primarily a local business with most sales within New York, the Morocco Pavilion at Walt Disney World’s Epcot accounts for 30 percent of the distillery’s mahia sales. Since Disney World’s Florida operations have been closed since mid-April, those sales have taken a hit.
Although spirit production has stopped at the distillery, its whiskey and mahia are still selling on their website, using supplies from Nahmias inventory. When a customer buys hand sanitizer or a spirit online, Nahmias sends them free liquor samples.
That’s important — especially when the coronavirus pandemic is history, and it’s time for everything to return to normal.
“When people buy hand sanitizer from us,” Dorit said, “it helps for us to continue in the future as a business.”