Distilling for coronavirus: From BSB (Brown Sugar Bourbon) to HSP (Hand sanitizer production)

This+pandemic+has+also+been+putting+many+businesses+under+or+in+a+dangerous+place.+Like+any+other+company%2C+HDC+was+focused+on+ways+to+stay+afloat+as+demand+for+their+products+dropped.+CEO+Justin+Stiefel+realized+they+could+pivot+to+making+hand+sanitizer+from+the+ethanol+they+had+produced+for+spirits.+Photo+courtesy+of+HDC

This pandemic has also been putting many businesses under or in a dangerous place. Like any other company, HDC was focused on ways to stay afloat as demand for their products dropped. CEO Justin Stiefel realized they could pivot to making hand sanitizer from the ethanol they had produced for spirits. Photo courtesy of HDC

Malia Kellerman, Editor

Heritage Distilling Company, a craft distillery based in the small town of Gig Harbor, Washington, has completely pivoted from its traditional line of work. This company that usually produces award-winning spirits has come up with a creative way to help our community during this coronavirus pandemic: Turning spirits into hand sanitizer.

HDC began as an idea shared between two couples around a firepit one spring evening in 2012. Between sips of whiskey that got their creative juices flowing, and decided to jump on the emerging craft distilling trend. Shortly thereafter, they founded HDC, even as none of them had any experience in producing spirits or even adult beverages of any kind.

After eight successful years, with the need created during the coronavirus pandemic, the company’s business model abruptly changed last month. Hand sanitizer was suddenly in great demand. Most grocery stores were quickly bought out, and some even began to price-gouge, charging customers as much as $25 per eight-ounce bottle. This pandemic has also been putting many businesses under or in a dangerous place. Like any other company, HDC was focused on ways to stay afloat as demand for its products dropped. CEO Justin Stiefel realized they could pivot to making hand sanitizer from the ethanol they had produced for spirits.

With incoming calls from the White House, FEMA, hospitals, nursing homes, grocery stores, police departments, fire stations, and local businesses, demand is through the roof. The trick is how to match that demand with supply. Fortunately, some members of the production team who had to be laid off early in the economic downturn caused by the pandemic have been rehired to help produce thousands of gallons of sanitizer.

How does it work?

The primary ingredient in sanitizers is ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, something HDC produces for its spirits. This ethanol is the concentrated alcohol that would otherwise become vodka if it was filtered and diluted with water down to 40%. Instead, the ethanol is kept at 80% and is then combined with hydrogen peroxide, glycerin, and boiled water to meet FDA guidelines for hand sanitizer.

Co-founder and head of production Drew Kellerman and his team have taken the CEO’s vision and made it their mission to pull together the resources, change the equipment, and shift the way HDC operates for the foreseeable future.

Each day brings new demands, opportunities and obstacles to overcome. One of the biggest concerns was gaining approval from administrations and organizations that oversee the production of alcohol and sanitizer. Luckily, with such high demand for sanitizer and great urgency to produce as much as possible, some rules and regulations have been relaxed to speed up the process. But that’s not to say HDC isn’t still running into a few problems.

“The FDA has relaxed the rules on what type of ethanol we need to use and some of the certifications that would normally be in place have been waved,” said Kellerman. “However, we learned that calling our sanitizer ‘hand and surface sanitizer’ is not allowed. The moment you call it ‘surface’ sanitizer, you are now making claims that is under the responsibility of the Environmental Protection Agency. They have not granted us the ability to make surface sanitizer, so we have to remove that from the name.”

As the production teams work to produce hand sanitizers, it has also found a way to help local restaurants and food stores to stay open.

Hand and Surface Sanitizer from HDC. Photo courtesy of HDC.

As HDC can deliver spirits to customers, they formed a partnership with local restaurants called “Deliver Together.” HDC will deliver food orders from those local restaurants that don’t have delivery systems in place. HDC isn’t taking any percentage of the food order and only requires that the customers also purchase one product from HDC, whether that’s the famous Brown Sugar Bourbon or another of its dozens of spirits. This operation is currently on hold while they deal with issues with the liquor control board, but they hope to restart that program up soon. This program has been put in place in all six of its locations.

Heritage is just one local distillery crafting sanitizers; more than 50 alcohol companies in North America have switched their operations too, making this a nationwide effort to supply people with the supplies they need.

Seven Troughs Distilling Company and Old Trestle Distillery – both based in the Reno/Tahoe, area also switched their operations to sanitizer. Their workdays, like HDC, have been 24/7, producing ethanol to combine with other local distilleries to produce the much-needed product.

“We have turned this into a new way of doing things faster than I thought we ever could. It’s been exhausting, it’s still exhausting but it’s been a tremendous amount of fun,” said Kellerman. “I know we are all feeling so fulfilled by our efforts, and it feels so good to see humanity come together to help folks in need.”