Distillers Making Hand Sanitizer Face Shortages of Key Supplies

As the whisky industry rallies to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, including by suspending tours and closing visitor centers, distilleries small and large are firing up their stills to contribute a crucial resource—hand sanitizer—to healthcare workers, first responders, and communities in need. Some craft distillers are even giving it away for free, while Pernod Ricard—which owns several U.S. craft distilleries, including Smooth Ambler and Rabbit Hole—and several other major distillers are shifting production to make hand sanitizer or ethyl alcohol for use in hospitals and other medical purposes.

And importantly, they can now do so with less red tape. On March 19 the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) waived the requirement for distilled spirits permit holders to obtain authorization prior to producing hand sanitizer, or ethanol for use in hand sanitizer, allowing more distilleries to swiftly respond to the crisis using their equipment. Yet they’re still facing challenges in other ways, as some struggle to obtain the materials they need (other than alcohol), such as glycerol and proper bottles and packaging.

Seeking Help From All Corners

Rochester, New York-based Black Button Distilling—which, like many other distilleries, has temporarily closed to the public—is manufacturing ethanol-based hand sanitizer to distribute to local hospitals and doctors’ offices (but not to the general public). Made according to Food and Drug Administration guidelines, the distillery is packing the sanitizer into the standard 750 ml glass bottles it normally uses for vodka or gin, and selling it at $260 per 24-bottle case, which covers shipping within Monroe County. But it’s searching for additional pump-dispenser packaging, and asking anyone with multiple pallets of such bottles, regardless of volume, to contact the distillery.

“Our biggest challenge right now is sourcing independent dispensing bottles, like pump-tops or squeeze-tops, that people would be able to use to pour the sanitizer right into their hands,” Black Button owner and head distiller Jason Barrett tells Whisky Advocate. “The bottles are definitely a supply issue. The rest of the supply, we have an acceptable amount for the moment, but we’re always looking to source more of the ethanol and glycerol that we need in order to continue production.” For glycerol, the distillery is talking to food manufacturers, and for ethanol they’ve reached out to other area distillers, as well as makers of cooking wine. “All of our traditional suppliers are sold out,” Barrett adds.

Gin and vodka maker Caledonia Spirits in Montpelier, Vermont is currently closed to visitors, but the distillery’s employees are keeping busy producing hand sanitizer for a variety of local nonprofit organizations, making their first delivery on March 18 to the Vermont Foodbank. Despite shuttering its on-site bar and retail store, the distillery says it continues to fully pay its staff, including benefits, and produce its flagship Barr Hill spirits. And it plans to keep making hand sanitizer for as long as its raw materials last; as of March 18, Caledonia had committed to producing another 1,500 4-ounce bottles for first responders, with the state agreeing to pay for raw materials, according to the distillery.

To that end, head distiller Ryan Christiansen and his team are looking for more glycerol and small bottles to keep the project moving, and have called on any businesses with large volumes of either to contact the distillery at info@caledoniaspirits.com. “We have had some challenges accessing glycerol and figuring out packaging,” Christiansen tells Whisky Advocate. “We’re just doing the best we can with what we have access to. We’re hoping to find a larger quantity—originally we were just looking at small quantities, [but] all the smaller retailers ran out, [so we’ve] started looking into more industrial-size operations. This is all moving so quickly. The demand is tremendous, so this gives us an opportunity to do something for our community—put some sanitizer out to market to ensure people have clean hands and a clear mind.”

Further west, Lyons, Colorado-based Spirit Hound Distillers, which makes straight malt whiskey along with gin and rum, is converting its spirit into hand sanitizer for local emergency services and healthcare workers, head distiller Craig Engelhorn tells Whisky Advocate. The distillery blended its first 48-gallon batch following FDA guidelines on March 17, and teamed up with local plant-based skin care company Green Goo to package it in 1,000 individual-unit spray bottles, making the first delivery that same day. “Our biggest hurdle, as soon as the liquid [raw materials] comes in, is that I have no packages to put it in,” Engelhorn says. “We’re struggling with this, not just here at Spirit Hound, but throughout the state. By golly, I hope we all survive this, and we can have a big ole party in a few months, and toast to our health.”

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