The directives couldn’t be clearer for combatting the spread of COVID-19: Wash your hands for at least twenty seconds or, when soap and water are unavailable, use hand sanitizer. This is easier said than done, as drug stores and pharmacies across the country are sold out. Now, distilleries are stepping in.
According to the CDC, sanitizers need to contain at least 60 percent alcohol by volume in order to be effective. This is a higher percentage than you’d find in vodka, whiskey and other spirits. But the first runs of distillation—material left out of the final product—clock in much higher. Shine Distillery & Grill in Portland, Oregon, had already been using their 80-proof runs as cleaning products in their distillery and adjoining restaurant. With the current need, they pivoted to producing hand sanitizer, adding xanthan gum and water, and bottling it for visitors and local businesses.
Chad Butters did the same at his distillery, Eight Oaks Farm, in New Tripoli, Pennsylvania, donating it to local charities and making it available at farmers’ markets for an as-you-wish donation.
Increasingly, distilleries all over the world, from Vermont to Washington State, Australia and the UK have rallied to the challenge. In France, LVHM has directed its perfume division to produce gel-based hand sanitizer for health authorities; Pernod-Ricard has instructed Absolut to produce neutral spirit to give away to companies that can produce and distribute sanitizer.
Here in the US, FDA regulations had, in essence, prohibited distillers from getting product on pharmacy shelves and into medical settings until last week. But on Friday, March 20, the FDA announced new guidelines, temporarily lessening restrictions in response to the current public health emergency. The agency will not enforce its normal requirements as long as the producer strictly follows the protocol for formulating hand sanitizer, tests and labels it per FDA guidelines, registers their facility and lists their product with the agency. The ingredients are limited to ethanol (80 percent by volume) denatured in accordance with Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) regulations or isopropyl alcohol (75 percent by volume), mixed with glycerol (1.45 percent), hydrogen peroxide (0.125 percent) and the balance sterile distilled or boiled cold water.
The American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA) has been working with the FDA, TTB and members of Congress to help smooth and speed the transition from alcohol to sanitizer. Mark Schilling, former ASCA president and current head of the sanitizer task force, reports that “we are asking Congress to waive the federal excise tax liability for any sanitizer made with undenatured alcohol. [Denatured alcohol has additives intended to discourage its ingestion and recreational use.] We are also asking for help in sourcing and transportation of other necessary ingredients and packaging materials.”
To address that need, the Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS) launched a resource portal on March 24. Distillers can log in and connect to find ingredient suppliers and distributors to assist with delivery, warehousing, and transport. There is also a list of distillers that have transitioned their operations to produce hand sanitizer.
“Distillers feel the call to arms,” says Melissa Katrincic, of Durham Distillery in North Carolina. “We are in a unique position to provide a service and my husband and I want our boys to see what it means to step in and help.”
This story appears in the print issue of February 2020.
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