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SoCal Distilleries Are Making Hand Sanitizer Instead Of Liquor

(Vodka bottle image: Blinking Owl Distillery. Hand sanitizer photo: Martin Sanchez/Unsplash)
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On a normal day, Robin Christenson would be overseeing the production of Carraway-tinged aquavit and vodka flavored with Valencia oranges. But nothing is normal these days. With bars and restaurants mostly closed due to the coronavirus, distilleries don't have clients to buy their alcohol.

Now a handful have stopped producing liquor — and started producing hand sanitizer. At Santa Ana's Blinking Owl Distillery, Christenson, the company's chief financial officer, expects the first bottles of hand sanitizer to leave the company's 6,500-square-foot facility in late March or early April.

"A couple weeks ago, we saw the Purell shortage and we started looking into the regulations for [making] it," Christenson says. "We already had some high proof spirit that was ready to be made into vodka but we decided to put that toward hand sanitizer."

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Blinking Owl isn't alone. Portuguese Bend Distillery in Long Beach and AMASS, which distills in downtown Los Angeles, are also gearing up to produce hand sanitizer.

For Morgan Mclachlan, the head distiller at AMASS, it started a few weeks ago when she wanted hand sanitizer for herself and couldn't find any in stores or online.
"So I thought, 'I'm a distiller. I'm already formulating things with alcohol. I'll just make my own.' And then I thought, 'I'll make some for my friends and family.' Then it turned into, 'I'll make some for the office.' Then, from there, we just started to see there was a real need." Mclachlan says.

Last week, she thought she'd make a couple hundred units to sell online and give to clients. But she says she has received numerous inquiries for wholesale production, both for commercial sale and for government agencies. "The scale of it has just changed really, really dramatically, really, really quickly," Mclachlan says.

Ryan Friesen, the head distiller at Blinking Owl and vice president of the California Artisanal Distillers' Guild, estimates that approximately 20 distilleries across California are retooling their operations to make hand sanitizer. It's happening around the country, too.

"We're not going to replace the industrial suppliers shipping product across the country. This is more about local distilleries helping their local officials and communities," Friesen says.

Distilleries are well positioned to do this because the liquor you pour in your martini and the sanitizer you rub on your hands have the same key ingredient (although at much different strengths): ethyl alcohol.

"It all starts with vodka," Christenson says.

How They Do It

Once grain has been fermented into 12% alcohol, it's put into a still (basically a giant pot) where it's cooked until it becomes a high-proof, 96% pure alcohol. This neutral grain spirit is the base for vodka (and other liquors) but it's also the base for hand sanitizer. In fact, you could use this straight alcohol as a sanitizer, although most companies will add glycerin to make it thicker and less harsh on human skin.

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The World Health Organization's recipe for hand sanitizer recommends adding hydrogen peroxide, an antiseptic that kills bacteria.

Making hand sanitizer isn't complicated. Pivoting from liquor distillation to be able to do it, is.

On a scale of 1 to 10, Christenson says the process has been a 6 in terms of difficulty. The company has had to work with the federal Trade and Tax Bureau to sort out the regulations and tax implications, with California's Alcoholic Beverage Control to ensure compliance and with the FDA, which regulates hand sanitizer as an over-the-counter drug, to make sure they're checking all the boxes for health and safety.

"Waiting for the federal government bureaucracy to go through the processes and give us the go-ahead, that it was probably the toughest part," says Simon Haxton, spirits tsar at Portuguese Bend.

It has also meant sourcing new ingredients like glycerin, labels and bottles, which have been incredibly hard to find.

Christenson estimates Blinking Owl has spent between $10,000 and $15,000 to gear up for production — not an inconsequential sum for a small business, especially one with no income coming in. (The cost was fronted by one of the brewery's partners, actress Kirsten Vangsness, who plays computer whiz Penelope Garcia on Criminal Minds.) She says from start to finish — fermenting the grain to bottling the sanitizer — the entire process should take 10 business days.

Portuguese Bend has already produced a small amount of hand sanitizer by taking a batch of high-proof alcohol and converting it.

"It didn't take very long to do a very small batch, but we're seeing a larger and larger demand," Haxton says. Figuring out how to scale up and find a market for the product will take longer.

In Orange County, when supervisor Andrew Do heard that distilleries were doing this, he reached out to Blinking Owl and helped connect them to county agencies. The distillery is producing 2-oz. pocket bottles, 12-ounce pump bottles, 1-gallon tubs and 55-gallon drums of hand sanitizer. Most of it is already spoken for. Orange County officials plan to distribute the pocket-size bottles to homeless people. The industrial-size containers will likely go to police stations, fire departments, hospitals and medical facilities. Blinking Owl will also sell some of the pump bottles to their customers.

With the coronavirus pandemic in full swing, demand for hand sanitizer is going to grow.

(Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash)

"It's looking like we're going to need to double our production and hire and get this off the line because there's so much need right now," Christenson says.

So far, distilleries haven't been jacking up the prices, according to Friesen.

"The distilling community in California is happy to be in a position where we can provide a public service," he says. "Many distilleries are donating products. Some are selling it where appropriate but nobody price gouging. The goal is to get this into the hands of first responders. That's where the first wave of this is going."

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