UPDATE: The distilleries turning booze into hand sanitiser

Millie Milliken

Millie Milliken

24 March 2020

William Grant & Sons is in the midst of working on its supply of 5m litres of ethanol to make hand sanitiser during the covid-19 crisis.

The drinks company shifted production at three of its distilleries for at least eight weeks.

On 23 March 2020, Diageo pledged to help enable the creation of 8m bottles of hand santiser during the covid-19 crisis.

The drinks giant, which makes the likes of Johnnie Walker and Smirnoff, will be donating up to 2m litres of grain neutral spirit (GNS) to hand sanitiser producers in order to protect frontline healthcare workers. The donation will result in eight million 250ml bottles being made available.

Sitting at 70% abv, GNS is made from denatured alcohol, usually used in the production of vodka and gin. With the approval of HMRC, distilleries can distribute the liquid for use, instead, as antibacterial hand santiser.

This is the quickest and most effective way for us to meet the surging demand for hand sanitiser around the world

Ivan Menezes

‘Healthcare workers are at the forefront of fighting this pandemic and we are determined to do what we can to help protect them,’ said Ivan Menezes, chief executive of Diageo. ‘This is the quickest and most effective way for us to meet the surging demand for hand sanitiser around the world.’

500,000 litres of GNS will be donated to national healthcare systems and workers in the UK and Ireland, while Diageo is also providing other countries with the spirit where it has major distilling operations and based on local circumstances.

Meanwhile, Bacardi has partnered with Olein Refinery and turned its rum distillery in Cataño, Puerto Rico, into a hand santiser production site. Where before the company was producing 80% of its rums, it is now providing the raw materials needed to make 1.7m units of 300ml bottle of santiser.

‘This is a family-owned business and we know what it means to take care of a community in need,” said Jose Class, vice president for supply chain & manufacturing, for Bacardi Latin America and the Caribbean. ‘In the 158 years of Bacardi, we’ve endured our share of challenging times and have learned that resilience, optimism and community are what will help us come out stronger.’

Scottish brewer and distiller BrewDog distributed its first batch of Punk Sanitiser two weeks ago, with co-founder James Watt tweeting: 'We are bottling our sanitiser today. Aberdeen Royal Infirmary's Intensive Care Unit got in touch to tell us that they were out of sanitiser. So we are delivering to them, for free, this afternoon.'

Since then, Imbibe caught up with Steven Kersley, head of distillation at BrewDog Distilling Co. to find out how production is going now that the likes of the NHS and Tesco have become two of the biggest organisations using their product. A recent visit from their local Aberdeen ambulance team saw them offload 500 bottles in one go. 

'The lucky thing is that the biggest component in [hand sanitiser] is ethanol, which we have in abundance. On Tuesday [17 March], we had made the decision that we were going to do this and it took a four-day turnaround [to make it].'

Although the company were quick to act, there have been a multitude of challenges along the way. The main one being the shortage of dispensers needed to bottle their sanitiser. 'We first looked to our stock of bottles and we found a little 100ml bottle in which we used to pack our (32% abv) Tactical Nuclear Penguin beer. We had just over 150,000 of those in stock, so that was a quick solution.' The team worked with their internal design team to come up with a label and now, the bottles are ready for distribution.

Despite the long hours required to keep both production of the sanitiser and the usual spirits on track, Kersley sees this as being 'one of the most important things we've done since our inception. You understand how fragile all of our communities are, in Aberdeen and the rest of the UK, and for us to lend a hand in a small way is super fulfilling. 

'I think it is so important that we feel like we’ve had the opportunity to support our community.'

Big difference

There are plenty of other distilleries doing their bit too, from smaller domestic distilleries to their bigger, international counterparts. We will be updating the below regularly:

  • Cranes brewery has been transformed from its usual production of cider, gin and liqueur to creating Cranes super-fruit hand gel. It will be giving away its recently developed hand gel to the vulnerable as well as its employees who are working hard to keep shelves stocked in shops.
  • Hensol Castle Distillery in South Wales, which sits in the cellars of a Grade I-listed, 400-year-old castle, has diverted operations of its newly opened production lines to make hand sanitiser. It's already had orders from front-line services including St John’s Ambulance, the Metropolitan Police, Welsh Water as well as a number of local councils.
  • The Spirit of Manchester, which distills Manchester Gin, has swapped producing gin to making hand sanitiser to support the NHS Nightingale Hospital North West.
  • Kentucky's Buffalo Trace Distillery (which makes its namesake bourbon whiskey, as well as Wheatley Vodka, Eagle Rare and more) has started to use its facilities in order to produce industrial hand sanitiser for health services, the military and pharmacies. The distillery also donated bottles of its Clear Spring and Diesel 190 high proof grain alcohol to first responders and other essential industries. 
  • Shepherd Neame and Copper Rivet Distillery have teamed up to produce sanitiser for the emergency services. Shepherd Neame began brewing 'clean beer' for the initiative a week ago (24 March) which is then road-tankered to Copper Rivet and used for their distilling process.
  • India's Rampur Distillery, owners of Rampur Single Malt and Jaisalmer Indian Craft Gin, is beginning hand sanitiser production on a permanent basis with a global roll out planned in the coming months.
  • Darnley's Gin's Kingsbarns Distillery, on the outskirts of St Andrews, has completed its first round of production to help support the vulnerable in the East Neuk of Fife.
  • The British Honey Company – which produces vodka, gin, rum and liqueurs – is utilising its excess capacity at its distillery in Worminghall, Buckinghamshire. Its sanitiser also contains British honey and green tea.
  • Lincoln Gin distillery has stopped production of its gin in favour of hand sanitiser.
  • Surrey's Silent Pool Gin is giving away 50 bottles of hand sanitiser a day (one per person) while any orders of spirits receive a complimentary bottle too.
  • 58 Gin debuted its hand sanitiser at this year's The Drinks Trust (formerly The Benevolent) ball.
  • Stirling Gin has received huge demand from the UK, as well as Portugal, Brazil, Belgium and France as it switches from gin making to hand sanitiser production.

Bravo to everyone involved in making a difference.

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