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Turning Corn Into Hand Sanitizer: One Distillery's Coronavirus Response

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By Glynn Cosker
Managing Editor, EDM Digest

Flag Hill Distillery and Winery in Lee, N.H., usually produces wine, whiskey and other spirits. However, once the coronavirus pandemic began to spiral, the company shut down its liquor production and switched to making hand sanitizer.

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Gone In Minutes’

Flag Hill Distillery and Winery Owner Brian Ferguson
Flag Hill Distillery and Winery proprietor Brian Ferguson. Credit: Flag Hill Distillery and Winery.

“We started to produce hand sanitizer last Monday (March 16),” stated Brian Ferguson, 32, the owner of the distillery. “And by Thursday (March 19), we had produced 55 gallons – and that was gone in minutes.”

The distillery is currently churning out various grades of hand sanitizer in five-gallon buckets and supplying it to local first responders, hospitals, nursing homes, grocery store personnel, and other essential recipients and businesses – the people who need it the most during the coronavirus crisis. The distillery’s product is stronger than the brand-name hand sanitizers that disappeared from store shelves seemingly overnight. The production process is similar to distilling liquor.

Flag Hill Distillery and Winery Corn mash coronavirus
This corn mash will become hand sanitizer. Credit: American Military University.

From Corn To Hand Sanitizer in Around 5 Days

“We cook corn at a high temperature,” Ferguson explained. “When it drops down to a low enough temperature, we adjust the pH balance and give it malt to convert all of the starches into sugars. Then we ferment that – it takes about three to four days – and when it’s done fermenting, we run it through the still for one or two days. This produces about 55 gallons a day of what we call neutral spirit – essentially it’s alcohol at around 190 proof. We then dilute it down with a little bit of water, some hydrogen peroxide and glycerin.”

Ferguson, a native of Athens, Pa., has owned Flag Hill Distillery and Winery since 2015 when he moved to New Hampshire from the Cayman Islands. The distillery has 30 to 40 employees – depending on the season. Right now, it’s bourbon season. When the COVID-19 cases started to rise exponentially in the U.S., the first thing Ferguson did was reassure his staff that their jobs were safe.

Nobody Is Going To Lose Their Job’

“I sat everybody down and said ‘nobody is going to lose their job no matter what happens – even if everyone has to go home, it doesn’t matter because you are all still going to get a paycheck until this is over,’” said Ferguson.

Ferguson wisely had a contingency strategy already set up prior to COVID-19, making the strategy part of his overall business plan in case a pandemic or other disaster situation occurred.

“We’ve always stayed liquid for this type of scenario, so if something really catastrophic happened, we wouldn’t be concerned about cash flow,” said Ferguson – and one assumes there was no pun intended.

Remote Wine Tasting

Flag Hill Distillery and Winery Shelves and Store
Flag Hill Distillery and Winery’s shelves on any given day. Credit: American Military University

Flag Hill Distillery and Winery opened in the mid-90s and features 21 acres of vineyards, allowing the winery to produce thousands of cases of wine each year. The distillery uses only local ingredients and produces bourbon, vodka, rum and gin – in addition to whiskey. The site also hosts weddings and other private events.

The establishment usually sees around 200 people on any given weekend – mostly for wine tasting and purchases – but according to Ferguson, the foot traffic since the COVID-19 outbreak has declined to “close to zero.” However, he is optimistic about the future and is confident that he’ll continue to serve his client base during the coronavirus pandemic. To that end, orders normally purchased in person are now phoned in, and Ferguson has introduced “remote wine tasting” events.

Flag Hill Distillery and Winery - Hand Sanitizer Buckets
This is the final product during the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: American Military University

“This state and the people in it are amazing,” said Ferguson. “It’s shocking that people don’t know how amazing New Hampshire is. We’ll all get through this.”

Click here for all of EDM Digest’s coverage on COVID-19 and coronavirus.

Glynn Cosker is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. In addition to his background in journalism, corporate writing, web and content development, Glynn served as Vice Consul in the Consular Section of the British Embassy located in Washington, D.C. Glynn is located in New England.

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