San Diego's distilleries have shifted to making and selling hand sanitizer, in addition to craft spirits.
The World Health Organization’s guidelines for making hand sanitizer calls for four ingredients, including glycerol, hydrogen peroxide, and distilled water. But mostly it requires alcohol, meaning either isopropyl (rubbing alcohol), or ethanol, the kind we drink.
This is useful information, given hand sanitizer was among the first things disappeared from store shelves when the coronavirus hit. And because that main ingredient is something San Diego distillers work with every day. In the past week, a number of them have shifted production from craft spirits to hand sanitizer, to distribute to local residents, service industry professionals, first responders, and hospitals.
At this writing, even Amazon can’t get any hand sanitizer to you before May. However, the stuff is available at McoHandSanitizer.com, starting at $6.95 for a 2-ounce bottle. The web site was just set up by Misadventure & Company, the Vista distillery that produces vodka from discarded baked goods. Misadventure is on track to produce 24 thousand bottles by late March, both direct to consumer and to wholesale accounts.
But providing hand sanitizer won’t be restricted to households. Trent Tilton, owner of San Diego Distillery, continues to work full time as a registered nurse employed by the county, and reports his hospital has started to look at alternative sources for sanitizer, anticipating a demand crush as the full weight of covid-19 cases hit. “We’re not short,” he emphasizes, “but there’s definitely a concern about supply.”
While Tilton has been kept busy by 12-hour hospital shifts, he’s lent San Diego Distillery’s van to fellow distillers, who have been driving around town spearheading an effort to gather up neutral grain spirits from small batch distilleries, then produce hand sanitizer to sell at cost to first responders and health care providers.
“A lot of us in the industry thought, 'We have this ethanol, what can we do?' ” says Geoff Longenecker, owner of Seven Caves Spirits, and current president of the San Diego Distillers Guild. Longenecker and Bill Rogers, owner of Liberty Call Distilling, heard about distilleries elsewhere stepping up to make sanitizer, and with a little trial and error, produced six gallons they bottled to give away to customers.
It occurred to them they could scale up with the help of fellow distillers in possession of neutral grain spirit, the nearly pure ethanol small batch distillers often source from factory producers as a base for vodka and gin. Longenecker and Rogers went about procuring ethanol from fellow distilleries including BNS Brewing and Distilling, California Spirits, and Old Harbor Distilling, enough to produce more than 200 gallons of sanitizer, most of it earmarked for institutions in need.
“We’re trying to prioritize health care and law enforcement,” says Longenecker, “Significant quantities have gone to local health care clinics and hospitals.”
Rogers explains that Liberty Call has only had the funds to buy all this ethanol because he’d had been preparing to order 15 grand worth of ingredients to finally open a Barrio Logan tasting room and restaurant, a year and a half in the making. With that business now on hold, his chef and bartender have joined him in fill small bottles of hand sanitizer.
The bottles are being offered at cost — Rogers said they would prefer to donate them all, but all the distilleries are already facing massive losses during the current crisis. “For every gallon of ethanol we get, we should be making 10 bottles of vodka,” he says, at an minimum loss of $200. “We’re just trying to keep the lights on,” he says. Nevertheless, he adds, “If there’s any money left over, we’ll donate it to the bartenders guild.”
And San Diego’s largest distillery, Cutwater Spirits, has announced it’s using its cache of neutral spirits to produce hand sanitizer to donate to local organizations offering crucial service, including San Diego Food Bank. In addition to sanitizer, “Cutwater will also be donating funds to the Food Bank that will help the organization produce over 50,000 meals for distribution in San Diego.”
With neutral spirit becoming harder to come by for small batch producers, some are looking for ways to put their stills to use. Old Harbor is accepting donations of unsold beer from local breweries including Amplified Ale Works and Belching Beaver, and San Diego Distillery is looking into doing the same thing with local wine, and planning to distill high proof spirit from a sugar wash to speed up the relatively slow process.
Which gives them time to figure out a new problem. Behind such altruistic industry efforts, two- and four-ounce plastic bottles have become impossible to find, so as the health crisis unfolds, local distillers find themselves on the hunt for little plastic bottles.