Drinks industry raises the bar to help out during coronavirus crisis
Distillers and brewers are making hand sanitisers and supporting out-of-work bar staff
Grainne and Sarah McAvinchey attach labels to bottles of hand sanitiser at Listoke Distillery in Co Louth. Photograph: Ciara Wilkinson
One sector which is continuing to operate during the Covid-19 lockdown is the drinks industry. The industry contributes more than €2 million to the economy, exports more than €1.45 billion worth of products every year, and supports more than 92,000 jobs around the country.
“Manufacturing is continuing, as the production process can operate with social distancing. Bottling and distribution are still continuing as well,” says Patricia Callan, director of Drinks Ireland, the trade association representing brewers, distillers, brand owners and distributors on the island of Ireland.
“Our members include multinationals as well as smaller and newer market entrants such as microbreweries and distilleries,” Callan adds.
The industry has been coping well with the challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic, she says.
“The marketplace has got a lot tougher. The on-trade has closed in a lot of countries. That means one outlet for draught beer and cider has been closed off. The off-trade bounce has not made up for it and the boost from that tends to subside after a while. Supply chains are working well and are generally operating quite smoothly.”
There have been some gaps, of course, which have largely been the result of spikes in demand in retail.
“Bulk buying in retail is resulting in increased demand for staples, and this is putting strain on supply chains,” Callan notes. “Panic-buying has presented a few problems.”
The designation of the off-licence trade as an essential service has been important for the industry. But public safety is paramount.
“Where off-licences can stay open with social distancing, they should be allowed to do so,” Callan contends. “Otherwise, you just cause more problems in the longer term. If a business can adhere to the guidelines it should be allowed to stay open.”
The industry is also making a significant contribution to the fight against Covid-19.
“Personally, I have been so impressed by all the companies and what they have been doing,” she says. “They have all thought very hard about what they can do to help the national effort and have been doing lots of different things to support it.”
The most publicised response has been the production of hand sanitiser by a number of distilleries.
It’s encouraging to see the drinks industry doing what it can in the effort to tackle Covid-19
“That’s not an easy thing to do,” Callan points out. “Our members know about alcohol and can produce the ethanol for it, but it’s a medical product. Irish Distillers partnered with Mervue Laboratories in Cork to manufacture large-scale quantities of alcohol gel. Smaller companies are trying to reorganise their production systems to do it. They also have to work with all sorts of other agencies to do this as the regulation is different. What they are doing is taking them into the pharma area.”
Listoke Distillery in Co Louth is also using its resources to help meet the demand for alcohol-based sanitisers, and is already supplying Dublin Fire Brigade with much-needed product. Clonakilty Distillery in west Cork is manufacturing sanitisers with an alcohol content of 63 per cent, while Tullamore Dew is the latest in a long line of companies to join the effort.
“At such an uncertain and challenging time, it’s encouraging to see the drinks industry doing what it can in the effort to tackle Covid-19,” says Callan. “This fight will require government, the health and public sector, industry and society all working together on a co-ordinated response. As an industry, we are committed to doing what we can to help out and our members are working with the HSE on it. They want to get product to where it’s most needed.”
Covid-19 support is not limited to manufacturers.
“A number of global companies without manufacturing entities here have set up funds to support people like bar workers and so on who are impacted by the crisis,” she points out. “Also, Guinness Ireland has made €1.5 million available to support communities affected by Covid-19. That sort of support has always been part of the ethos of Guinness.”
Many of the efforts have been more low-profile.
“Most of our members tend to be located outside the big hubs like Dublin and they are very much part of their local communities,” says Callan. “They are making a very big contribution to those communities. They hire local people and there is massive pride in them in their local areas. Their first priority has been to look after their people and make sure they are safe and well. They continue to support their suppliers and customers, even if the on-trade is closed.”
Indeed, she points out that the brewers are still going into pubs to ensure the beer lines are cleaned and well maintained, to be ready to open whenever the lockdown is lifted.