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The Big Pivot to Hand Sanitizer

Over 500 distilleries have returned to alcohol's roots to fight COVID-19 from the bottom up.

On March 1, 2020, Morgan McLachlan, then eight months pregnant, was on a flight to San Francisco from Los Angeles for a full day of meetings in preparation to launch a new aperitivo. The distiller behind Amass, a high-end botanical gin maker, McLachlan was aware of the growing threat of COVID-19, and, while in transit, was unable to locate hand sanitizer. Then it occurred to her. For the decade she’d been distilling, McLachlan’s hands were always very clean. “Of course, I knew about the antibacterial property of alcohol,” she says, “but I had never thought to make sanitizer.”

When she returned to Los Angeles, McLachlan made a batch from the ethanol she had on hand. When she started selling the sanitizer on her website, she says, “The response was huge.” That was early March. Then, like a wave, came the pandemic. Like all non-essential businesses, Amass shuttered its doors to the public. However, McLachlan was not idle. Distilleries, as soon became clear, had a unique role to play in the bottom-up fight against the novel coronavirus.

At the same time, 2,500 miles east in North Carolina, Lee and Melissa Katrincic of Durham Distillery were preparing to open their new downtown Durham bar, Corpse Reviver. While traveling to the Charleston Wine and Food Festival, they noticed an undertow of anxiety coursing through the tasting tent. “[COVID-19] was on everybody’s mind,” says Melissa.

For the Katrincics, who have a background in pharmaceuticals—Lee is a chemist, while Melissa worked for years in marketing for Pfizer—their next move was obvious. “We thought about what we could do to help,” explains Melissa, “and realized what we had, as a distillery, was ethanol.” At first, the couple used the alcohol to make a simple disinfectant spray, which they distributed to local restaurants and bars. Soon, they began making hand sanitizer, too.

As it turns out, ethanol (C2H5OH) is a miraculous molecule, capable of inhibiting our social hangups—as a karaoke catalyst, a dance enzyme, a confidence adjuvant—and, with a high enough ABV, of destroying germs, bacteria and viruses. Before COVID-19, I was not quite so cognizant of how close a cousin the Old-Fashioned is to the bottles of Purell attached to my kids’ backpacks, but the pandemic has made amateur chemists and armchair epidemiologists of us all.

Today, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, over 500 distilleries in the United States (about a fourth of the country’s spirits producers) have begun making hand sanitizer. These range from powerhouses like LVMH, Bacardi and Pernod Ricard to craft distilleries in every single state. Instagram feeds that once featured bottle porn and cocktail glamour shots are now populated with DIY atomizers and small bottles of clear gel made of 70 percent alcohol, glycerol and hydrogen peroxide.

The formula is about the only thing standardized about the effort. While many smaller distilleries have taken the soup-to-nuts approach, some of the larger corporations have taken to donating grain neutral spirit directly to companies already making sanitizer. Diageo, for instance, has redirected 2 million liters of ethanol, once destined for vodka and gin, to be made into more than 8 million 250-milliliter bottles of sanitizer, to be distributed internationally. Pernod Ricard, on the other hand, is pumping thousands of gallons of ready-made sanitizer out of its Arkansas facility. While most distilleries, like Amass, are donating their sanitizer to first responders and other emergency personnel, they also sell it directly to consumers. Prices range from $10 for 2 fluid ounces or $38 for 16 ounces of Amass’ eucalyptus-scented sanitizer (with 10 percent of the profit going to the U.S. Bartenders Guild’s emergency charity) to 35 cents per fluid ounce at Durham Distillery. “This isn’t a money-making operation for us,” says Melissa Katrincic. “We’re just trying to do our part to help our community and to keep the lights on.”

Like many dramatic shifts in civil society, the massive mobilization of distilleries was made possible through imperceptible yet tectonic shuffling of bureaucratic paperwork in the nation’s capital. In this case, on March 18, the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) waived a provision of the tax law, allowing those who already had a permit to distill spirits to manufacture hand sanitizer as well. This move affected both large biofuel producers—a $43 billion a year industry, which redirected some of their ethanol to sanitizer production—and distilled spirits makers, a $27.5 billion industry.

In some ways, this broad repurposing of alcohol is, in fact, a return to its roots. “Before alcohol was used as a recreational drug, it was used primarily as a painkiller, and as a delivery method for medicinal herbs and spices,” says Jane Peyton, historian and author of Drink: A Tipplers Miscellany. “Armies would carry alcohol, not necessarily for drinking, but for battlefield medicine.”

It would be nice indeed to end with a rousing hortation to all hoist a glass to our interconnectedness, but more man-made challenges loom on the horizon. Most recently, says Chris Swonger, president of the Distilled Spirits Council, is the fact that though one government agency, the TTB, has relaxed the rules to enable this groundswell of civic action, others haven’t. The FDA, for instance, still insists that only denatured alcohol (that is, alcohol treated so that it is poisonous and unpalatable) can be used to qualify for the tax exemption, whereas most distilleries have been using, and have on hand, only undenatured alcohol. This regulatory disparity potentially puts the 500 distillers already making sanitizer on the hook for up to $13.50 per gallon in excise taxes. “That’s just crazy,” says Swonger, “but we’re in constant talks with the FDA and hope we’ll get it resolved soon.” As for Melissa Katrincic, she remains hopeful. “Everyone is trying to help,” she says. “We’re all looking for a solution.”

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Joshua David Stein is an author, journalist, and performer. He’s the author of children’s books such as Invisible AlphabetCan I Eat That? and Brick: Who Found Herself in Architecture, and of adult books such as Cooking For Your Kids and To Me, He Was Just Dad. Previously, he was the restaurant critic for the New York Observer and a food columnist for The Village Voice. Joshua is a founding member of the Band Books, an improvisational music group that performs children’s book sing-alouds. He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his two sons and his one dog.