On Monday, Industrious Spirit Company tasting room manager Liam Maloney spent hours tossing small bottles of house-made hand sanitizer out of a window at the Providence, R.I., distillery.
Simultaneously in Plymouth, Dirty Water Distilling was fielding an “overwhelming” number of sanitizer requests from first responders. And in Everett, the owners of Short Path Distillery were waiting for more supplies to arrive so they could whip up another batch.
At a time when distilleries have been forced to temporarily close tasting rooms, halt tours, and cancel events to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, many have scrambled to start producing ethanol-based hand sanitizer in response to the national shortage and critical need for sanitation products amid the global health crisis.
“We thought, nobody’s able to get it, so let’s start offering it,” said Brenton MacKechnie, head distiller at Dirty Water Distilling. “The idea is that this is a stop-gap measure until the commercial companies are providing supply and the volume adequate to meet demand.”
According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, more than 300 distilleries in the country, including at least six in Massachusetts, six in New Hampshire, two in Rhode Island, four in Connecticut, and seven in Vermont are now producing hand sanitizer — something many of them said they never expected to be doing.
Some distilleries have been giving it away, either in pre-filled bottles or asking customers to supply their own. Others are selling it — alongside things like to-go gin and tonic kits and other quarantine-themed specials — to help offset materials cost and keep their businesses afloat during this uncertain time.
“We lost half of our business with the restaurants shutting down,” said Chris Weld, owner and distiller at Berkshire Mountain Distilling, in Sheffield. “I don’t think with making hand sanitizer we’ll hit the numbers we make with restaurants operational, but it helps, and it allows us to keep employees on. We may even be able hire a couple restaurant workers who were furloughed.”
After noticing the shortage a couple of weeks ago, members of the Massachusetts Distillers Alliance started an e-mail thread discussing whether they could make their own hand sanitizer out of ethanol alcohol, the same type of alcohol in the spirits they were already producing, by following a formula put out by the World Health Organization.
The relatively simple “recipe” contains high-proof ethanol, which kills the virus, plus hydrogen peroxide to prevent potential bacterial contamination and glycerol to slow the evaporation of the ethanol so it can sit on the skin long enough to work. The final product should contain at least 80 percent ethanol, according to the WHO. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that a formulation with at least 60 percent ethanol “inactivates viruses that are genetically related to, and with similar physical properties as COVID-19.”
When the Massachusetts distillers group started talking about it almost two weeks ago, “the feedback was, legally, you’re not allowed to make this because you need a different licence,” Weld said.
Then, last Wednesday, the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau announced that it was waiving parts of the law to allow already permitted distillers to make and sell hand sanitizer made according to the WHO formula “without having to obtain authorization first.”
“So then immediately all of us started jumping through hoops and making do with what we had,” Weld said.
For him, it was “some gin stuff.” So he made it into a sanitizer that has notes of juniper, the predominant botanical used to flavor the spirit.
“Yes, we’re bastardizing our wonderful drinking alcohol, but it’s all for a good cause,” he added.
Mike Reppucci, owner of Sons of Liberty Beer & Spirits Co., in South Kingstown, R.I., sourced neutral grain alcohol from one of his regular suppliers to make the hand sanitizer he gave away in an elementary school parking lot to anyone who wanted it on Monday. His distillery partnered with a Rhode Island beauty company, Java Skin Care, to quickly figure out how to make, package, and distribute about 2,000 bottles of it, and they are working on producing more.
But Reppucci is concerned, however, that the ingredients distillers have been rushing to source could soon become as scarce as bottles of Purell and Clorox wipes are now. So he and many of his peers are asking people to take just small amounts of what they are making, so they can prioritize distributing it to the people who need it most, including hospital workers and older folks.
“We’ll make it for as long as we can,” he said.
The formula is flammable, so it cannot be shipped by mail. If you are in need of hand sanitizer and want to try to get it from a distillery, it’s best to see if it’s available by calling or checking the social media accounts of one near your town or city before heading out to get it, the distillers said.
Health experts generally consider hand sanitizer to be a second-best option to use when it’s not possible to thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water. That’s something distiller MacKechnie keeps finding himself repeating as people flock to his facility to fill bottles.
For a list of distilleries making hand sanitizer, visit www.distilledspirits.org/distilleries-making-hand-sanitizer.