We all desire a clean finish on the palate from our after-dinner dram of choice, and as it happens, a clean finish is also the mark of a quality hand sanitizer. Right now, Americans need the latter even more than spirits: As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread, there's been a shortage of the germ-killing gel. The stuff is mostly alcohol, so you see where this is going: Stepping up in already-strapped times, distillers have begun using in-house tools to manufacture sanitizer, and for most, it’s their first time. This week brings news that their hygienic cuvées are getting quick approval from government agencies, and hundreds of gallons are on their way to fire departments and other first responders.
Joe Barton and his team at Barton Family Wines and Krobar Distillery in Paso Robles, Calif., have made 300 gallons so far, with another 1,000 gallons on the way. “I give it to the TTB and FDA for giving distilleries the green light to get this done,” Barton told Unfiltered. “They’ve given us formula requirements to streamline it and give people the safest possible product out there.” In the past few days, the Barton team has gotten hand sanitizer to the appropriate appendages of 13 public-health agencies and first-response centers, from the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo County to the Paso Robles Fire Department and the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office.
As it turns out, making hand sanitizer isn’t much different from making craft beverage alcohol. Spirit Hound Distillers head distiller Craig Engelhorn blended a 48-gallon batch for local fire departments and healthcare facilities in Lyons, Colo., where the distillery is based. “Think of it like an infusion,” Engelhorn told Unfiltered. “Do your normal distillation and go to a neutral spirit at 96 percent ABV, and blend that back down with glycerin, peroxide and a little bit of water. Get that to an above-80 percent ABV mixture, and stir it up and put it in squirt bottles.”
Is there a certain brand—or choice liquor—that scrubs out bacteria better than others? Nope. “The active ingredient is ethanol, so any brand would work really,” Windsor, Ontario’s Hiram Walker & Sons Distillery master blender Dr. Don Livermore told Unfiltered. “However, neutral spirits are ideal, as we are concerned about odor or texture of the sanitizer.”
The big-time distillers are also springing into action. Tito’s Handmade Vodka is gearing up to produce and distribute 24 tons of hand sanitizer for the local community (unlike recent DIY versions, this one is made for hands). The multinational beverage powerhouse Pernod Ricard is also ramping up sanitizer production.
“All of our facilities will be devoting some labor resources, equipment, people, time and attention to the hand-sanitizer production process,” Melissa Hanesworth, vice president of operations for Pernod Ricard North America, told Unfiltered. “It’s a high priority and we’re also still able to continue producing our product without disruption, while balancing both jobs and shifting resources as needed.”
Making the stuff has been going pretty smoothly, but packaging problems are causing headaches for distilleries. “If my liquid ingredients show up for the next batch we’ll be able to do 200 gallons,” Engelhorn of Colorado said. “But I can’t put it in anything.” So, distillers are grabbing their spirits bottles and yes, wine bottles too. Paso's Barton indicated he’ll soon have to package in wine bottles. “Whatever it takes."
All this, despite the closures of tasting rooms around the country putting a dent in distillers' main game. “It’s a tough time. Our tasting rooms are 70 to 80 to 90 percent of our sales,” Barton said. “Losing that opportunity was gigantic.” But he believes that keeping his community healthy will get business going again. So for now, hand sanitizer—to help everyone get back on their feet.
As Italy continues the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, a winery in the northeast region of Friuli/Venezia-Giulia is pitching in on relief for one of the hardest-hit areas of the country. On March 13, after meeting with doctors in need of materials and equipment, the team at Zorzettig Vini winery began raising money via wine for the local Ospedale Universitario Santa Maria della Misericordia in Udine, with a twist: It labeled reserve bottles of the 2015 Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso with a new name, “Andrà Tutto Bene": “It Will Be All Right."
“Andrà Tutto Bene is a good wish for the future that needs to be translated into a practical action right now,” Zorzettig owner Annalisa Zorzettig told Unfiltered via email. “We have received a lot of messages of people willing to buy the bottle and support the project.”
Zorzettig has confirmed that most of the 720 bottles have already been sold, but she is considering preparing a second batch. The reserve Refosco can age for years, and that’s the point. “This bottle, along with the immediate help it can provide to people in need, will be a real witness of this difficult moment, to be told to our grandchildren,” Zorzettig said. “We would love to see a picture of the bottle taken a few years from now, on a table where a family is sharing a meal together, well aware of how this emergency has strengthened their relation, their pride and their optimism.”
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