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Agriculture and Food

To Fight Coronavirus, Alumnus Distiller Shifts from Spirits to Sanitizer

Alumnus Aaron Bergh holds up a bottle of his company's hand sanitizer, behind the bar at his distillery tasting room
Written By Larry Peña

Cal Poly alumnus Aaron Bergh is putting the “pub” in public service.

As the coronavirus pandemic swept across California, Bergh knew he wanted to help others in any way he could. So he repurposed his Paso Robles distillery, Calwise Spirits, to produce a different kind of alcohol.

Now, instead of serving up cocktails with his distinctive gin and rum, he’s serving much-needed hand sanitizer to state and local agencies on the front lines of the public health crisis.

"It was a very fast decision I had to make,” said Bergh. “As the coronavirus situation got worse and worse, I started noticing that there are agencies out there — fire departments, public service, transit authorities – that didn’t have sanitizer and couldn’t find it.”

Using their distilling equipment and the alcohol-producing ingredients they already had on hand, Calwise was able to change gears from liquor to hand sanitizer in just 12 hours.

Bergh posted about his new product in the Facebook group HelpSLO and quickly got responses from companies, agencies and individual consumers in need.

Within days, he was supplying bulk hand sanitizer to local fire and police departments, the San Luis Obispo Regional Transit Authority, the SLO Food Bank and other groups, at a rate much lower than most commercially-available hand sanitizers.

His most sobering interaction was a call he received from the FBI field office in Los Angeles.

“They have agents out in the field as part of the COVID-19 response team, and they are running out of hand sanitizer,” Bergh said. “This sanitizer is going to make a huge difference in keeping them and the public safe.”

The product has also helped rally people together in a time of crisis: several other companies have helped keep the effort going by contributing containers and other supplies.

While Calwise is currently able to handle demand, Bergh is on the lookout for partners with access to hydrogen peroxide, glycerin and bottles, in case they run out in the future.

Community service agencies in need of hand sanitizer — or individual consumers looking to boost their quarantine morale with the distillery’s other products — can visit the Calwise website.