You might not think your local booze maker is going to have what you need during a public health crisis. But they really just might.
As the United States faces a pandemic, concerned denizens have made moves to protect themselves, stocking up on disinfectants, masks, gloves, and, especially, hand sanitizer. The alcohol-based disinfectant is a quick-acting first line of defense that doesn’t require a stop in the restroom.
But by the second week in March, stores and online sources were reporting that they had run out of supply. On March 20, the FDA issued new relaxed emergency guidelines for the making of hand sanitizer to “provide flexibility to help meet demand during this outbreak.”
Rather than wait for the market to catch up, local distillers realized they could swap over from liquor production to provide immediate assistance to their communities.
Loon Liquor Co.
Loon Liquor Co. is a distillery in Northfield, Minnesota (pop. 21,000), co-founded in 2011 by high-school friends Mark Schiller and Simeon Rossi. Rossi had invited Schiller to a White Russian party where he served drinks made with his homemade coffee liqueur, and the idea for the distillery was born. Today, they produce thousands of gallons of vodka, gin, whiskey, and several liqueurs each year.
Earlier in March, Schiller started looking into producing sanitizer just for the distillery cocktail room but saw varying standards online. “I didn’t want to do this for the public until I received guidance,” he said.
On March 18, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) released a statement that allowed any Distilled Spirits Permittee to start producing sanitizer immediately if following the posted WHO guidelines, a recipe that calls for 80 percent ethanol (or 75 percent isopropyl alcohol), 1.45 percent glycerol, and 0.125 percent hydrogen peroxide.
“I’m producing 95 percent alcohol to make vodka. I’ve got way over that,” Schiller said.
They needed to mix down that 95 percent base alcohol to the proper specification. “Any distiller knows how to do this. We do this all day long,” Schiller said.
For the two ingredients they didn’t have, glycerol and hydrogen peroxide, they reached out to their local cleaning supply company, Triton Chemical, to purchase five gallons of each. The company gladly donated both.
Said Schiller, “We had a whole batch [of base spirit] ready to be turned into product, the equivalent of about 1,000 bottles of liquor. We took all of it and put it immediately into sanitizer. We said, ‘The community needs it more than us.’”
Within 20 hours of the TTB press release, they started supplying to the public. At the moment, most of their production is prioritized for organizations with essential personnel, but they also have a limited supply of six-ounce bottles to go along with their curbside liquor sales pickups. So far, a mix of donations and sales have covered the costs.
Dancing Goat Distillery
From Cambridge, Wisconsin, a town of less than 1,600, Nick Brady Maas, head distiller of Dancing Goat Distillery answered questions by phone while in the middle of making a batch of sanitizer. They had shut down the distillery earlier in March, even before the state called for the closing of non-essential businesses, but “people started begging me to make [hand sanitizer]. Adults calling, begging,” Maas said in disbelief. “We decided we could no longer not make it.”
So they re-opened for production only, but with staff limited to two people at a time in separate areas of the distillery to safeguard their health.
Dancing Goat Distillery produced their first batch of sanitizer with their own vodka, a very expensive endeavor with organic grains selected for flavor, not necessarily efficiency in alcohol production. Now, because they have the ability to do so, they are buying tanks of alcohol to make larger amounts of sanitizer more quickly.
“We made 1,200 gallons this week, and it’s all gone,” Maas said. “We’re getting people calling us saying, ‘We’ll take everything you can make us.’ That’s fire departments, the state of Wisconsin, the state of Illinois, railroads, trucking companies.” The need is overwhelming. They are not fielding requests from consumers for small bottles, but focusing on large quantities for first responders.
“We try to get our costs covered, and we’re getting donations,” said Maas. Anything earned from sales goes into buying more supplies. “All of the labor is donation.”
When asked about the future, Maas simply stated: “I’m not an epidemiologist. As long as the community needs us to produce, we’re going to produce.”
‘The Little Boats’
At the time of writing, the American Craft Spirits Association estimated that 75 percent of the roughly 2,000 craft distilleries in the United States are producing or planning to produce hand sanitizer. Schiller at Loon Liquor Co. came up with an analogy.
“You know the story of Dunkirk?” he asked. In the Battle of Dunkirk, during World War II, the retreating British army had backed up against the sea along the French coast, pinned down by the advancing Nazi military. Because of damaged docks and the strafing Luftwaffe, the navy was unable to move larger ships in for an effective evacuation. Hundreds of private fishing vessels, pleasure cruisers, and ferries from all over the UK came together and managed to land on the beach to help save more than 330,000 souls.
“All of us, the little microdistilleries that have the capacity to do it? We’re the little boats.”
Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler and the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and several outdoor and brewery guidebooks. He is based in Madison, Wis., and his website is TheMadTraveler.com