White House Works With Distillers To Increase Hand Sanitizer Production
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Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write in my career: Distilleries are making hand sanitizer.
That’s right, instead of letting sweet precious whiskey distillate drip off the still, they’re earmarking the high proofed alcohol for their communities in an effort to ease the COVID-19 pandemic on the public.
“We consider it a donation – we will provide it free of charge. It’s just the right thing to do,” says John Little, CEO of the West Virginia Distillery Smooth Ambler. “And we’ve already been contacted by several folks that run medical facilities here that are dangerously low. We consider it an honor.”
Smooth Ambler’s a part of a manufacturing front against the virus. Just as President Trump announced plans to invoke the Defense Production Act, the White House created a manufacturing task force to help fill the supply gap needed to stop the coronavirus’ spread.
Pernod Ricard, Smooth Ambler’s parent company, said in a statement that their team has been working closely with federal officials, including Dr. Peter Navarro, Assistant to the President for Trade and Manufacturing, to navigate several regulatory hurdles and obtain the necessary approvals to produce American-made hand sanitizer.
“In times like this it is important that everyone, especially companies with strong U.S. roots, like ours, prioritize good corporate citizenship and step up in the name of the greater good. I am glad that we were able to form this public/private partnership and repurpose our spirits production facilities to meet a pressing, national need,” said Ann Mukherjee, Chairman and CEO, Pernod Ricard North America, in a statement.
There’s an added bonus to this good deed, too: No beverage alcohol taxes. Spirits are among the most heavily taxed goods in the world. But if distillers make hand sanitizer, which is non-potable, they get to skip the fat check they write Uncle Sam every month.
But they must strictly follow the World Health Organization’s formula for making hand sanitizer. This requires distillers to distill at higher proof points, 190 proof and above, which is why vodka and denatured alcohol producers are well-suited to take on hand sanitizer production, while whiskey distillers, whose stills usually hit around 170 proof as a max, must alter their equipment.
Smooth Ambler purchased bulk neutral grain spirit from MGP Ingredients and will manufacture the hand sanitizer in their facilities. “The transition from alcohol production to hand sanitizer is fairly easy – we have the equipment and just needed a few supplies,” Little says.
Little said while Smooth Ambler is not the first distillery to do this, Pernod Ricard cleared the path through the TTB and the FDA. “Several distilleries have produced hand sanitizer, but I’m not sure they’ve done it legally. The White House, contacted by Pernod, cleared some hurdles with the TTB and FDA and we got clearance to begin production,” he said. “Now, there’s a more clear path to make sure everyone is legal. And absolutely, they should do it if they have the resources – time, money, supplies, and skill.”
There is precedent for distillers making industrial alcohol in a time of crisis. For both World War I and World War II, American distillers worked with the government to create denatured alcohol for the war effort. Unfortunately, the government also did not allow any beverage distillation at this time. Companies were allowed to sell existing product, leading to genuine shortages, but they had to discontinue whiskey production.
If the hand sanitizer sanitizer demand continues, it could cut into whiskey distillation.
In his book, Bourbon: The Rise, Fall & Rebirth of American Whiskey, Fred Minnick predicted a natural disaster could end bourbon’s return. Follow him on Instagram and sign up for his free drinks newsletter. Watch his latest YouTube video, “What Alcohol Makes the Best Hand Sanitizer?”
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