Two Triton distillers, Yuseff Cherney ’92 of Cutwater Spirits and Justin McCabe ’00, MS ’03, PhD ’06, of 117° West Spirits, share why they began making and donating hand sanitizer in the time of COVID-19.
Where did the notion come from to make sanitizer?
Cherney: Being a distillery, we have the ability to work with high-proof alcohol, which is a very specialized thing to be able to produce and package. And hand sanitizer is basically very similar to the products we make on a day-to-day basis. It’s a quick pivot—the same alcohol base, and just a few other ingredients based on the recipe the FDA put out. In short, we saw the need for it and had a lot of folks reaching out to us: local food banks—which we partner with regularly—and San Diego County hospitals and first responders. So we repurposed some equipment we had and started up some packaging lines.
McCabe: I had seen some other distilleries doing it, and it seemed to become something like a movement that was happening. I started looking into the FDA recipe, talked about it with my sister, Melissa Thompson ’96, a fellow Triton and a pharmacist, and I also had a student (I’m a high school chemistry teacher as well), Sid Israni, who approached me and asked if I was thinking about doing this—he wanted to be involved too.
We already had an inventory of some high proof spirits that we could use, and I thought it’d great to work with him on this initial inventory of about 15 gallons or so that we could donate to local communities in need—some shelters and food banks in North County, and others that I left up to Sid and our school’s service learning program, who have lot of partners in the community.
How does the process work? Is your equipment full of gel, for instance?
Cherney: The recipe that we are allowed to make per the FDA is a non-gel sanitizer. We’re not allowed to add what’s called a cross-polymer, which allows the product to gel. What we and other distilleries in San Diego are producing is a bit different—it has the consistency of a liquid. Which makes a little bit easier for us to pack—it packs just like a spirit would. But that’s been the hardest part for us actually—finding the packaging. It’s in such short supply.
McCabe: That’s been a challenge even on our scale, too. Plastic containers are very hard to find right now—every single size you can imagine, dispensing caps, everything. I’ve managed to find suppliers who’ve donated some, and I actually had another student whose parents own a bath products company—they sent us about 2000 bottles. They have a little red design on them, but really, in times like these, who cares? They work and get the job done and they can help people out.
Cherney: We’re just basically filling anything we can get our hands on to get the sanitizer out there—that is, to the organizations we’re partnering with. We’re not distributing this straight to the public, as we’re trying to limit the exposure of our employees.
What would you want your fellow alumni to know about what you’re doing?
Cherney: If you’re capable of helping out, in times like these, that’s just what you do. And if you’re sitting on something special that can help the community, it goes even more so. Cutwater donates regularly to the food banks, but in a unique crisis like this where we can actually make something that helps as well, that’s just a no-brainer. And in the case of UC San Diego alumni, I’m sure there’s so much expertise and knowledge and effort that can be shared as well. Whether it’s research in biomed, or equipment like face shields or masks, you get it out there and help. It’s what you do.
McCabe: As a small distillery, I’d for one want alumni to know we’re here and hopefully we’ll be here when this has all passed, so folks can come out and try what we make. But as for our outreach, right now it’s just about doing what you can. Whether that’s being safe and staying home, or if there’s some other way should the opportunity present itself. I see it as an obligation—we can make this specific thing that can help people. But we all can do what we can. You can be a student in high school or those of us with degrees from UC San Diego—we can all make a difference. It’s what these times need.
Yuseff Cherney ’92 studied philosophy in Muir College, and soon after became the first employee of Jack White’s Home Brew Mart, which gave rise to Ballast Point Brewing Company. Cherney ultimately became head brewer for Ballast Point and founded their distilling operation, which, after the brewery’s sale, became Cutwater Spirits. As a student, Cherney taught homebrewing classes at UC San Diego’s original Craft Center, and today continues to lead the Professional Certificate in Brewing program through UC San Diego Extension.
Justin McCabe ’00, MS ’03, PhD ’06 earned a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Chemistry followed by a Master’s and Doctorate in Chemistry all from UC San Diego. His research focused on stable isotope biogeochemistry in Mark Thiemens’ Lab. After UC San Diego, McCabe pursued a career in teaching. He taught at Windward School in Los Angeles until 2012 when he returned to San Diego and began teaching at his current school in Carlsbad, Pacific Ridge School. All the while he honed his skills in homebrewing, which translated into opening 117⁰ West Spirits in December 2017.