Reports from around the country show that many of us want to step up and help out in these times of social distancing and stay-at-home directives. Some of the inspiring stories coming out lately are from craft distilleries changing from distilling gin, vodka and liqueurs to making hand sanitizer.

Sadly, we’re not gathering socially to share a drink and toast life’s successes, despite the many memes making the rounds about the quarantine to drink while on that Zoom happy hour. And as the need for hospital-grade hand sanitizer is greater than the need for a drink, a change of direction makes sense.

But how does a distillery make that switch? Recently, the Emerson Boulder, Colorado facility had the privilege of assisting a small craft distiller, J&L Distilling, in making that change.

Precision measurement is essential to meet strict guidelines

There are Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) guidelines that govern the distilling of spirits. For distilleries wanting to make hand sanitizer in this time of COVID-19, the FDA provides an additional and separate set of requirements. These guidelines are specifically designed to ensure that the percentage of alcohol in the final product is high enough in ethanol concentration and pure enough to provide the kind of protection against bacteria and viruses that are needed in hospital or first responder settings.

The FDA twelve-page temporary policy document, “Temporary policy for manufacture of alcohol for incorporation into alcohol-based hand sanitizer products during the public health emergency (COVID-19),” is very specific and states:

  1. To meet component quality requirements for hand sanitizer production, the alcohol manufactured as an API is not less than 94.9% ethanol by volume. 
  2. Any water used to adjust the finished ethanol content in the alcohol API is sterile (e.g., by boiling, distillation, or other process that results in water that meets the specifications for Purified Water USP). Water is used as quickly as possible after it is rendered sterile or purified.

Additional Considerations for Alcohol (Ethanol): Alcohol (ethanol) manufactured for use in hand sanitizers is derived from distillation or fermentation processes typically used for consumable goods.

J&L Distilling already had an advantage in meeting the requirements because of the type of still on site, which is 17-feet tall and provides 35 distillation states per pass; this means the distiller is able to provide a very pure distillate.

Teamwork gets the job done

Changing over to hand sanitizer from distilling spirits doesn’t just happen overnight. Initially, the proprietor of J&L Distilling, Seth Johnson, spent all his time at the distillery to make sure everything worked according to specifications. He rarely went home at night, wanting to make sure the process ran effectively and filling bottles with final product. Not to mention figuring out distribution.

A fan of Johnson’s distillery—and someone who works as a contractor at the Emerson’s Boulder, Colorado location—heard about this and started asking around within Emerson: “Was there not some way we could get Johnson a Coriolis meter to automate and speed up at least part of the process?”

In this time of great uncertainty and restrictions, we all want to feel that we are helping in some way, so it didn’t take long for a team within Emerson to make it possible for Johnson to get a Micro Motion Coriolis ELITE flow meter installed on a custom-built frame. This Coriolis meter, built and custom calibrated at the Boulder facility, is well suited to the application of turning ethanol into hospital-grade hand sanitizer. It features an all stainless steel construction, specifically designed for hygienic as well as high-pressure ratings, with the highest immunity to fluid, process and environmental effects.

Once up and running, Johnson put a call out for volunteers to help him fill bottles and deliver product. The bulk of the hand sanitizer is donated to a number of organizations in and around Boulder, among them: Boulder Fire Department, BCH Labor & Delivery Nurses, Boulder Food Rescue, Centura Hospitals, Children First, Cultivate, Denver Zoological Foundation and the National Association of Letter Carriers, to name a few. The rest is sold at different retailers throughout the area.

Close to 50 volunteers answered the call—all wanting to feel useful and help out—and are now working with Johnson to fill bottles and distribute product. Of course, while always maintaining safety standards and distancing.

Looking to the future

A new reality will become apparent as we eventually emerge from this time. What that reality will look like is uncertain; however, what is certain is that the relationships forged in trying times sustain us in some way. In reaching out and helping in small ways, people and businesses—even those big ones designated as essential—feel they are moving forward and evolving. In some ways, we are already building that new reality in the way we pivot to meet demands, both big and small. Large scale food and beverage production can continue with the flow meters processors need to keep providing the country with food. And small facilities, like J&L Distilling, can temporarily pivot from spirits to hand sanitizer in support of their local community.