When a hand sanitiser shortage threatened to close Centrelink offices on the eastern side of Australia, a Canberra distillery - and comedians driving vans - helped to save the day.
Underground Spirits has produced 40,000 litres of hand sanitiser for frontline medical staff and government agencies in the past six weeks, owner and head distiller Dr Toby Angstmann said.
Demand has been so great, the distillery has set up a new business arm - AUS, made by Underground Spirits - to sell to the public through a new drive-through sanitisation station at the Canberra Region Visitors Centre.
But a point of pride for Dr Angstmann will always be how Underground Spirits quickly shifted from producing artisan gin to pumping out pharmaceutical grade hand sanitiser at a time when global supply chains had faltered and demand had never been greater.
When pubs and clubs were forced to shut due to social distancing restrictions, there was a huge drop-off in demand for their products, and Dr Angstmann was looking at standing down staff.
An obstetrician, Dr Angstmann was acutely aware of the looming hand sanitiser shortage, and approached the ACT government to offer assistance.
What happened next was a testament to the ingenuity and generosity of Canberrans, in particular those in the food and wine industry.
Wineries donated their bushfire smoke-affected grapes and pubs gave kegs of beer they could no longer sell. Underground Spirits hired around a dozen casuals who had been laid off from other industries. Bentspoke's former chief brewer Mike Lloyd and Ross McQuinn from Pilot came on board to produce the sanitiser.
"These incredibly experienced people went from working on award-winning beer and wine to putting out pharmaceutical grade hand sanitiser," Dr Angstmann said.
Cadets from the Australian Defence Force Academy in Duntoon pitched in to empty tens of thousands of bottles into the stills. It was a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week operation.
Through the Emergency Services Agency, the distillery was able to distribute thousands of litres of hand sanitiser to those most in need, including nurses, doctors, paramedics, pharmacists, dentists and even the homeless. Dr Angstmann received 4000 emails in just one day from people looking to source sanitiser.
Then Services Australia called. The agency was facing mass closures of its Centrelink shopfronts across the eastern side of the country because it did not have enough hand sanitiser for staff.
"They reached out to us as a last ditch thing, seeing if there was any chance we could supply them," Dr Angstmann said.
They managed to get 1200 litres of hand sanitiser out to Centrelink branches within 24 hours. During the first week, they distributed 4000 litres.
But it almost didn't happen because of logistical issues.
"We were in a situation where Services Australia needed hand sanitiser, we could make it, but none of the big companies would ship it," Dr Angstmann said.
Enter the comedians in vans.
Pat Doherty, who'd been working for Underground Spirits, also ran a company that organised comedy tours called Dirty Thunder. It became Dirty Thunder Logistics and Mr Doherty used his network of comedians across the country to deliver the hand sanitiser to Centrelink branches at short notice.
"Centrelink usually provides for the comedians. After years and years we're just paying back the system that's been looking after us," Mr Doherty joked.
The comedians stayed up late at night to do online courses in dangerous goods training.
"I was told by Toby it would be easy but he's a doctor who delivers babies, of course he thinks it was easy," Mr Doherty said.
The irony does not escape Mr Doherty that the arts sector has been one of the worst hit and least supported during the pandemic.
"We literally had people overlooked by the system helping it out," Mr Doherty said.
Dr Angstmann said no one else but Mr Doherty could have pulled it off.
"No one else could have done it, I think. He had people in every state who were flexible enough to come help."
Underground Spirits' next mission is to start exporting its hand sanitiser. When a shortage of bottles threatened to slow them down, they partnered with a Victorian manufacturer to repurpose soup bags ordinarily used by the aviation industry to store sanitiser in, sort of like cask wine. The packaging is currently going through the final round of dangerous goods testing and certification.
But when the crisis is over, Dr Angstmann hopes Australians will remember the value of being able to manufacture locally.
"The cost of manufacturing capacity has to be measured in more than dollars. We need to make things. Underground Spirits has helped keep the doors open for critical services across the country. It's something to be proud of," Dr Angstmann said.
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