How a Coastside spirits producer converted his local operation to fight the coronavirus (while also keeping us well-stocked with booze)

Jason Tripp, owner of Tripp Distillery in Pacifica, pours hand sanitizer into containers for local residents to purchase. (Photo by Kent Hwang/HMB Review)

Jason Tripp’s newly made hand sanitizer smells like a high-end martini.

No, not briny with olives, but more of a floral, gin-based scent, like something served up with a twist that you’d spend $15 on at a hipster cocktail bar. But beyond the aroma, the refinement ends.

“It smells nice,” Tripp explains, “but it’s pretty rough around the edges, industrial strength stuff.”

Tripp is the owner of Tripp Distillery in Pacifica, a small warehouse space within a stone’s throw of Highway One to the east and with a clear view of the Pacific Ocean to the west. The distillery is a fun, funky space that is known for hosting lively local hangouts on weekend nights, while also turning out some award-winning small batch spirits in the process. More recently, as the coronavirus crisis unfolded, Tripp began clocking long hours to quickly convert the operation’s focus to producing much-needed hand sanitizer.

“I came up with the idea in the middle of the night, after thinking, ‘Ok, we gotta do something.’

At a critical time when both hospitals and drug stores alike are sorely lacking in sanitizer, Tripp is running his still—literally—24/7 to produce this on-the-fly version and sell it direct to locals at cost for $1 per ounce (8-ounce limit per customer). With a straightforward formula of alcohol and distilled water, it is certainly not as refined as Purell….but no one seems to mind.

Inside Tripp Distillery in Pacifica (clockwise from top left): the control panel to the in-house still, which has been running 24/7 since last week; bottles filled with sanitizer (Amazon has since stopped selling these, so customers should bring their own receptacles); the dry-erase board showcasing the day’s sales; Jason Tripp inside HQ. (Photos by Charles Russo)

…but what booze can do for your country

During World War II, American businesses converted their industrial infrastructure into operations producing much-needed materials for the war effort. Heinz eased up on making ketchup and focused on producing glider wings. Caterpillar switched from tractors to tanks and the Remington Typewriter Company went back to their roots by manufacturing firearms.

Tripp’s effort echoes this earlier wartime enterprise, and is a current case study in how businesses can convert and contribute. And he’s not alone. The large-scale producer of such heavyweights as Jameson and Absolute has recently shifted its alcohol-based businesses towards sanitizer, just as other local Bay Area distilleries (such as Richmond’s Falcon Spirits) have followed suit.

The demand is considerable.

Tripp Distillery employee Gabrielle Van Eijk filling up a customer’s Mason jar with hand sanitizer, on Saturday, March 21. (Photo by Charles Russo)

This past Saturday morning, Tripp rolled up the sliding warehouse doors to his distillery to find customers eagerly waiting to make a purchase. It has become a daily routine, which ends in his small operation regularly selling out of the day’s supply.

“Customers have seemed pretty stressed out, but they are also extremely grateful,” explains employee Gabrielle Van Eijk.

This is readily on display as people walk up from a very quiet Palmetto Avenue to inquire about what is available. Some bring their own receptacles— soap bottles, mason jars, Tupperware—while others take home a pair of 4-ounce plastic canisters at no extra charge.

While Van Eijk fills up the variety of makeshift containers with sanitizer, Tripp fields a steady influx of calls on his cell phone, answering inquiries about the supply that he has available. In the past week, he has received numerous offers from local institutions to buy his entire stock outright. Last night, the Sacramento Airport called with a similar proposal.

“We started out by selling large supplies to the police department and to a local hospital,” Tripp says, “but it became really clear that if we continued selling that way we’d be completely out in like five hours and have nothing.”

So Tripp restricted the sales to locals, first offering 33 ounces per customer and then reducing the individual allotment down again this past weekend to just 8 ounces. Although they have been running their still constantly since early last week, their distillery’s capacity is limited.

“We’re making it all we can,” Tripp says. “Our equipment is not designed to make hand sanitizer; it’s designed to make high-end scotch and whiskey. What would take a factory machine eight hours to do, it takes me 40 hours to do.”

A view of the front door at Tripp Distillery in Pacifica, pointing walk-up customers to the dock loading door further down the alley. (Photo by Charles Russo)

Small batch, huge contribution

Beyond the Coastside, Bay Area residents may recognize Tripp Distillery via none other than the San Jose Sharks, who serve Tripp’s very catchy Pacifica Gin, which turns from green to purple in the glass when you add tonic water. It was a high-profile partnership that brought some key business to the small distillery.

Tripp refers to his loss of revenue in recent weeks from the Sharks, local bars and his tasting room business as a “brutal punch.” It’s a familiar storyline in what has become an increasingly catastrophic economic landscape for local businesses, particularly the food and drink industry.

For now, Tripp is running his still—a big solid copper behemoth from Arkansas that they have nicknamed Big Butt Sally—“all day and all night.” He figures that the big industrial factories will in fact catch up soon, and then the smaller outfits can get back to making booze.

In the meantime, more local stills continue to pitch in. Half Moon Bay Distillery has been donating high proof alcohol to local senior citizens so they can make their own hand sanitizer. In Belmont, Old World Spirits is mobilizing to produce as well (according to Tripp).

Interestingly enough, most walk-up customers in Pacifica this past weekend not only bought the max allotment of 8 ounces of hand sanitizer, but a bottle of Tripp’s small batch spirits as well, namely—gin, rum or vodka.

The exchanges are upbeat even as a common shelter-in-place tension underlies them, and Tripp ends most of these sales by reminding people that the sanitizer is 70% alcohol by volume, effective but highly flammable.

In response, one customer makes a joke that Tripp is essentially in the business of selling Molotov Cocktails. Everyone has a laugh at this…but keeps their collective distance as they take their sanitizer back home.

Tripp Distillery is located at 1121 Palmetto Ave in Pacifica.

Follow them on Instagram or Facebook for the latest updates on their hand sanitizer sales.

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More local life from The Six Fifty:

Charles Russo

Award-winning writer and photographer with extensive experience across mediums, including videography, investigative reporting, editing, advanced research, and a wide range of photography.

Author of Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America; represented by Levine Greenberg Rostan Agency.

Freelance clients include Google, VICE and Stanford University.

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