Distilleries find new calling making hand sanitizer
Edgar Zuniga knows he might lose his business to the coronavirus, but if Twin Valley Distillers goes down, it’s going down swinging — with fists coated in hand sanitizer.
The Rockville, Md., distillery is one of a handful across the Delmarva region which have shifted production within the last two weeks from spirits to sanitizer to help fill a regional and nationwide shortage caused by the global pandemic.
Zuniga first began playing with the idea three weeks ago when the virus was spreading across Washington and California but hadn’t yet become a full-blown national crisis. He began selling March 23. Almost immediately, he said, he had a line of customers winding out of his store for two blocks down the street.
“I was trying to keep it quiet, just for the locals here, but it really went wild,” he said.
He sold 400 4-oz. bottles on the first day. He’d sold 1,500 as of March 25. His distillery, which typically sells vodka, rum and whiskey, has produced almost 2,300 bottles. He said he’s saving 500 for Montgomery County’s government, and he even gave bottles to the U.S. Secret Service.
“We refuse to sell out,” he said. “Everybody needs help. We’re all in this together.”
McClintock Distilling in Frederick, Md., has produced nearly 1,000 gallons, the first 300 of which were distributed in 10-liter containers similar to a wine box and donated to emergency responders, retirement communities and nonprofits such as food banks, said Braeden Bumpers, distillery co-founder.
“I have all of my production staff on,” he said. “We’re pretty much working round the clock to make as much as we can. We’re a small distillery so 1,000 gallons is a lot for us.”
Although he’s not donating or even selling to the general public, word of his production got out quick. He said he’s getting 200 calls a day. He advises the average consumer to rely on soap and water, which epidemiologists say is the most effective way to kill the virus.
“We’re trying to produce this for police and fire and aides at nursing homes, people who don’t have access to soap and water all the time and need something on the fly,” he said.
It’s not terribly difficult to turn a distillery into a hand sanitizer factory, owners said. Zuniga takes 95-percent, pure alcohol and moves it through charcoal and paper filters to remove unnecessary flavoring. He combines it with small amounts of vegetable glycerin, hydrogen peroxide and aloe vera gel in a stainless steel mixer, resulting in a viscous, effective hand sanitzer.
Other distillers, such as McClintock, are foregoing the aloe vera in favor of a recipe devised by the World Health Organization.
“Pretty much all of those emulsifiers are back-ordered for weeks if not months,” Bumpers said.
He said he puts his own 95-percent pure ethyl alcohol through a similar process — minus the aloe vera — producing a less viscous hand sanitizer that’s about 70-percent alcohol by volume.
“It doesn’t feel as nice as Purell,” he said, but it works.
BlueDyer Distilling in Waldorf, Md., accepted spoiled beer from a nearby brewery, distilled it down to its alcohol and put it through the same WHO process, said owner Ryan Vierheller, a retired police officer.
The distillery is also fermenting sugar and molasses — typically ingredients for rum — to produce more alcohol.
He learned through contacts in the public safety sector that first responders in the region basically had no hand sanitizer. His distillery made 45 gallons and donated it to area public service agencies.
“We had to do something,” he said. “We were sitting idle. The ability to serve the public servants is fantastic that we can do something with our idle equipment.”
The biggest roadblock to making more, however, is probably the availability of supplies, Zuniga said.
“Every time I place an order, the price goes up and up on raw materials that I need,” he said. “Finding bottles is really difficult.”
National distillery organizations are also involved. The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a trade group, has been in touch with federal regulatory agencies as well as the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force to clear red tape and “make sure we can be quick and nimble and fill a need in the marketplace,” said Chief Executive Officer Chris Swonger. “We all want to do our part.”
Beyond the humanitarian impulses of individual distillers, the liquor industry also has a vested interest in seeing the virus threat dissipate quickly, given its economic reliance on bars, restaurants and other hospitality and entertainment venues that have been shuttered by the outbreak.
Brad Plummer, spokesman for the American Distilling Institute and editor of Distiller Magazine, said he’s heard a lot of talk among distillers interested in converting part of their operations to hand sanitizer.
“The hospitality industry is going to be decimated by this and they are our primary clients. We’re looking for ways to help in the response to this, but also to find other ways to look for revenue streams,” he said.
Bumpers said McClintock has started selling its sanitizer — at cost, just so it can make more. No matter what, there may not be a happy ending for some of these producers. Twin Valley Distillers doesn’t have a lot of cash flow. A large amount of debt is going unpaid. Fortunately, a government institution swooped in with a $20,000 donation, which can pay the rent and employees’ checks for a short time, Zuniga said.
But he’s not sure how long he can last.
“I’m very proud of distilleries who are helping the community even though we may go out of business,” he said. “We’re going out in style instead of being a greedy person. This is bigger than anyone. This is the whole world.”
(The Associated Press contributed to this story.)
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