As hand sanitizer continues to be in short supply during the coronavirus pandemic, a number of distillers are working to fill the gaps.

It’s a natural fit for distillers, who already have the legal approval to manufacture products containing alcohol and the technical knowledge of how to produce the needed alcohol base for sanitizer. Some distillers are producing liquid hand sanitizer, while others are providing the alcohol base for gels. In either situation, they can quickly change over to producing the alcohol base while still maintaining their normal production.

At Ko’olau Distillery in Hawaii, CEO Eric Dill saw shortages in hand sanitizer becoming widespread. With the added challenge of goods having to be shipped by air or water to the islands, he knew that it would be a challenge for hospitals, first responders and critical civil service workers to get hand sanitizer.

“Despite being a small distillery, we could fill some of the gap,” he says. “We didn’t think we would be shifting our entire production to it; we thought it would be part of our production. But right now everything we’re making is going to hand sanitizer.”

The distillery normally produces whiskey, which uses eythl alcohol. The World Health Organization provides specs for making either isopropyl or eythl alcohol based hand sanitizer, so the distillery was able to use those to quickly convert to making a liquid hand sanitizer. The company’s filling equipment doesn’t work with the small pump bottles the sanitizer is being produced in, so the staff and volunteers are hand-filling the bottles, which Dill says is actually a benefit.  

“The hand filling is good because basically you’re dunking the bottle into the solution, and that actually kills everything around the bottle,” he says.

The response has been brisk, with even FEMA asking if it could buy the sanitizer. To help manage demand, Dill and the other members of the company’s leadership team decided early on that the priority would be to provide sanitizer to first responders, health care workers and critical civil service employees such as sewer or power workers.

At Wildnerness Trail Distillery in Kentucky, hand sanitizer production is sharing time with bourbon production. The distillery is continuing its normal production of 215 barrels of bourbon per day, but also devoting days to making and bottling hand sanitizer.

The company can produce a vodka distillate that is 190 proof, which is a higher percentage than the 80% needed for hand sanitizer. The distillate is proofed down and glycerin and hydrogen peroxide are added to make sanitizer.

The company plans to produce sanitizer for at least the near future, says Emily Toadvine, brand marketing. The goal is to produce 4,000 gallons of hand sanitizer to help meet statewide shortages, then continue working with county officials to meet ongoing needs locally.

Employees have gotten on board quickly with the idea, she says.

“It’s really pretty easy to mix and there has not been any pushback, as we realize how desperate the healthcare industry is to receive the hand sanitizer.”

It’s not just small or craft distilleries that are getting involved. Diageo, which makes Johnnie Walker and Smirnoff, has pledged to donate up to 2 million liters of alcohol to manufacturing partners who will make hand sanitizer.

Distribution of the alcohol will be worldwide, with 500,000 liters provided to manufacturers in the United States alone. The same amount will be provided to manufacturers in India and the United Kingdom, with smaller amounts being distributed to other countries.

“Healthcare workers are at the forefront of fighting this pandemic and we are determined to do what we can to help protect them,” says Ivan Menezes, Chief Executive of Diageo. “This is the quickest and most effective way for us to meet the surging demand for hand sanitizer around the world.”