The demand for hand sanitizer has spiked in recent weeks amid the COVID-19 pandemic, making the germ-killing product hard to come by both in stores and online, where Amazon and EBay have been forced to crack down on price gouging. With their ample supplies of alcohol, distilleries have stepped up to close the gaps.
According to Nielsen data, hand sanitizer sales were up 470% year over year for the week ending March 7, with the rising number of COVID-19 cases leading to a rush at stores to stock up on health and safety products. Reports surfaced earlier this month that some were making at-home sanitizer using spirits, leading vodka maker Tito’s to release a statement warning that these crude formulations were ineffective in fighting germs.
Now, distilleries from Pennsylvania to Hawaii are working collectively to alleviate this shortage by using their alcohol supply and ingredients recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) to safely produce hand sanitizer for their local communities. A spokesperson for the American Distilling Institute told the New York Times that an industry-wide survey showed 75% of the 2,000 craft distilleries across the country were considering joining the effort.
The movement has expanded beyond small craft distilleries: rum maker Bacardi announced yesterday its distillery in Cataño, Puerto Rico, which produces 80% of the company’s rum, has partnered with manufacturer Olein Refinery to provide ethanol to produce more than 1.7 million units of 10 oz. hand sanitizer. On Wednesday, wine and spirits giant Pernod Ricard announced that it would produce hand sanitizer at all of its U.S. manufacturing sites after navigating “several regulatory hurdles.”
On Wednesday, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau released a statement that it would waive the requirement for Distilled Spirits Plants (DSPs) to obtain permits to produce ethanol-based hand sanitizers following the formulation outlined by the WHO: ethanol (80%, volume/volume) or isopropyl alcohol (75%, v/v), glycerol (1.45% v/v), hydrogen peroxide (0.125% v/v) and sterile distilled water or boiled cold water. The Food and Drug Administration announced yesterday that it would not take action against firms not recognized by the FDA as drug manufacturers who are producing hand sanitizer for use by consumers and health care professionals, as long as the ingredients used are consistent with the WHO’s recommendation.
Pernod Ricard plans to produce over 5,000 gallons of hand sanitizer, according to Melissa Hanesworth, VP of North America Manufacturing. The company’s Fort Smith, Arkansas facility began production today, while Smooth Ambler Spirits in Lewisburg, West Virginia begins next week, with Rabbit Hole Distillery (Louisville, Kentucky) and TX Whiskey Distillery (Fort Worth, Texas) soon to follow. Pernod Ricard will work with the U.S. government to distribute the hand sanitizer.
“All of our facilities will be devoting some labor resources, equipment, people, time and attention to the hand sanitizer production process,” she said. “It’s a high priority. But we’re still able to continue to produce our product without disruption. Balancing both jobs and shifting resources, as needed, is a welcome opportunity for us.”
Morgan McLachlan, Master Distiller at Los Angeles gin maker AMASS, is currently eight months pregnant and recently began making sanitizer for herself and a few others for “peace of mind” when she couldn’t find any in stores.
“There’s really a need for hand sanitizer at the moment and distillers are in a unique position,” she said. “We have access to the ingredients to produce hand sanitizer and we also have the skills and abilities. Right now I thought I would be finishing the product development on our aperitivo, but I’m making sanitizer instead.”
While the AMASS team was able to “shift into high gear” to produce sanitizer, McLachlan said the most difficult part of production is having a secure supply chain, with deliveries for ingredients and packaging that typically take a few days now taking two weeks. The distillery has produced around 55 gallons of sanitizer, but is waiting on bottles before it can begin distributing the product.
Craig Engelhorn, head distiller at Lyons, Colorado-based Spirit Hound Distiller, said the distillery began its efforts late last week, meeting with the Colorado Distillers Guild and contacting local and state government to determine if they could go ahead. Spirit Hound partnered with local first aid and body care brand Green Goo, which donated 1,000 4 oz. spray bottles to the cause. Hawaii’s Ko’olau Distillery took a similar approach, partnering with local business Kōkua Sun Care to provide bottles for its sanitizer.
Engelhorn said Spirit Hound produced a 48 gallon batch of sanitizer this week, “weaving it right in” to its normal production. But the supply of ingredients and bottles has been an issue for him and others in the Colorado Distillers Guild. Going forward, he said, the guild will work together to supply each other with what’s needed to produce the sanitizers.
Some distilleries, including Durham Distillery in North Carolina and Old Fourth Distillery in Atlanta, are asking consumers to bring their own bottles, though the latter has since switched to producing sanitizer in 2 oz. spray bottles due to health concerns.
The demand for sanitizer is still high, and some distilleries have had to adjust their distribution strategies. Old Fourth along with Pennsylvania’s Eight Oaks Distillery both initially distributed their sanitizer to the public, but have scaled back due to overwhelming response to solely provide it to local organizations and healthcare professionals.
Engelhorn said the town’s mayor wants the sanitizer distributed to local businesses, police and fire departments and medical centers with immunocompromised patients. It’s also available for the community to pick up at the distillery, where Spirit Hound suggests a $5 donation to cover production costs. McLachlan said she’s been in touch with local government agencies, and even received a call from AT&T asking for sanitizer for its field technicians. Once the sanitizer is available for sale, 10% of the proceeds will be donated to the United States Bartenders Guild Emergency Grants Program.
Engelhorn said he hopes the community takes away from these efforts the same lessons it learned when floods devastated Colorado in 2013, leaving the distillery under three feet of water. In response, the community banded together to raise $10,000 for the local fire department.
“I told people at that time that we’re gonna look back at this and you’re all going to grow, we’re all going to know more, we’re going to be a better community because of this experience,” he said. “And after the flood, that was quite true. So I expect the same thing to happen here.”