Distilleries Around the U.S. Shift Production to Hand Sanitizer

Some distilleries are donating their new product to local communities in need

Making hand sanitizer
Sara Cartelli fills bottles with a hand sanitizer at the Claremont Distillery during the coronavirus pandemic on March 20, 2020 in Fairfield, New Jersey. Distillery owner Tim Koether will offer it to the general public for free. Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images

In Manchester, New Hampshire, Live Free Distillery stopped producing its signature dill pickle vodka, per the Union Leaders Shawne Wickham. In Richmond, California, Falcon Spirits has stopped producing naturally-flavored, organic spirits, Jessica Yadegaran reports for Mercury News. Central Standard Craft Distillery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, usually collaborates with other local producers to make their infused liquors like their Door County Cherry or Anodyne Coffee vodkas, but they've shifted their specialities, too, reports Julia Marshall for WTMJ-TV.

These craft distilleries and more have moved their production entirely to creating high proof ethanol required for hand sanitizer in order to supply their local communities. Across the country, distilleries from small town breweries to the likes of Bacardi and Anheuser-Busch InBev are moving production to meet the demand for portable hand sanitizer amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"It's been quite a trip," said Zachary Robinson, co-founder of Short Path Distillery in Everett, Massachusetts, tells WBUR’s Bob Shaffer. Short Path began producing hand sanitizer after the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau changed its policies to allow already-permitted distillers to make it.

Robinson continued, "We felt we were trying to do what we can as a company, but it was definitely this feeling of helplessness. And now it certainly feels very good to like — 'Oh we are doing something. We are going to actively be part of the effort.'"

About two weeks ago, the U.S. faced a shortage of hand sanitizer, specifically with a 60 percent or higher concentration of alcohol. While hand washing remains the gold standard for destroying the virus particles that cause COVID-19, it isn’t always an option. For healthcare workers, emergency responders, postal and grocery workers, the pocket-size bottle of sanitizing gel is necessary alternative.

Familiar grocery store and pharmacy brands of hand sanitizer had disappeared from the shelves. But distillers specialize in making the main ingredient: a spirit with a high concentration of alcohol. Live Free, Falcon Spirits, Short Path, and dozens of other distilleries are following a hand sanitizer recipe released by the WHO in 2010, back when the pandemic H1N1 “swine flu” was still popping up around the world.

The recipe creates an 80 percent alcohol hand sanitizer and calls for water, a skin-moisturizing gel called glycerol, hydrogen peroxide to sterilize the homemade brew, and 96 percent ethanol solution.

To make that final key ingredient, distilleries like Twin Valley Distillers in Rockville, Maryland had to stop processing grain. Instead, owner Edgardo Zuniga invested in 7,500 pounds of sugar. Grains are chemically complicated, and it takes time for yeast to ferment, but sugar molecules are small and simple for fermenting yeast to break down into ethanol, which makes it perfect for churning out the high-proof spirit needed for sanitizer.

It also takes time and practice to get the production right.

“We were doing very quiet production and didn’t tell anybody. … I’ve been experimenting four days before Sunday, for 16-hour-days,” Zuniga tells Bethesda magazine’s Dan Schere. Zuniga sold the four-ounce bottles of sanitizer for four dollars each, initially to local first responders, though he notes that he is losing money overall.

Jack Baker, co-owner of Litchfield Distillery in Litchfield, Connecticut, tells the New York TimesMichael Levenson that their first requests for hand sanitizer came from health care workers, police departments, soup kitchens and homeless shelters.

“And then we have people walking in with just desperation on their faces, and old people calling up, crying,” Baker tells the Times. Litchfield Distillery has been distributing their hand sanitizer free of charge. “The community has supported us, so it’s an obligation, if you have a product that could be helpful. It’s what you do.”

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