Purifying Spirit of Local Distilleries

Necessity is the mother of invention, states the proverb. In the midst of this unprecedented 2020 pandemic, it is more hand sanitizer that is needed and it is distilleries that are inventing new production methods. St. Augustine Distillery was one of the first nationwide distilleries to have stepped up to the innovative challenge. Their first batch of 200 bottles of hand sanitizer was given to the St. Augustine Police Department in mid-March. As of our publication date, the distillery stated that they will continue production and make bottles available at no cost to visitors.

Brad Plummer, editor of Distiller Magazine, says that “this is good news for an industry eager to contribute as society otherwise grinds to a halt, clouded in fear and uncertainty.”

Hand sanitizer has been hard to find during COVID-19 outbreak. “My daughter Addi was home from New York three weeks ago. She made a comment that she was having difficulty getting hand sanitizers. We looked everywhere. You could not find any commercial hand sanitizers at any price,” says Philip McDaniel, co-founder and CEO of St. Augustine Distillery. “Once we looked at what went into making hand sanitizer, we realized the active ingredient was ethanol, which is what we make every day at the distillery!” McDaniel says that their first batch was made for first responders and the community using a more natural formulation that included ethanol, aloe, vitamin E oil, and essential oils (lavender, tea tree, lemon, and clove). “It was awesome and worked great,” he says. “However, since that time, several government agencies have issued more specific direction how they want distilleries to make hand sanitizer and so we have since changed our production to their formulation.”

Ethanol is a distillery’s leftovers, an alcoholic by-product that isn’t used in spirits. There are challenges to its large-scale production into an entirely different product, however. Plummer points out, “While it may seem like an obvious way for spirits producers to contribute to the growing pandemic response, there are a range of safety and regulatory concerns to consider first.” Plummer says that each state and local municipality has their own regulations on production, some of which have been suspended or modified during the COVID-19 outbreak. Still, “Careful and informed process methods are key here,” says Plummer. 

The St. Augustine Distillery says it is now using a formula approved by the Tax and Trade Bureau, which has approved the production of hand sanitizer by distilleries with a Distilled Spirits Plant license. The formula, useful for small-batch home production as well, is a mixture of alcohol, glycerin, hydrogen peroxide, and distilled water. (See the World Health Organization’s at-home recipe on this page).

The bigger hurdle that the distillery faces is getting the bottles to package the sanitizer for the public. Shipments have been a bit slow, due to the stresses on the shipping business, but McDaniel says they are planning to make as much as they can. “Once we get into production, my guess is we’ll probably have a thousand or a couple thousand by the time it’s all said and done,” he says. “If those can help the community here, you know that would be great.”

While the ethanol already exists at distilleries, its use for hand sanitizer production does add extra costs. In response to the crisis, St. Augustine Distillery is only accepting donations, though, and are giving them to the American Legion Post 194 in West Augustine for the Legion’s Kid Zone playground project.

“To make a couple of thousand bottles, the tax is going to cost us almost $600 or $700 just for that. Forget the bottles, forget the labels, forget all the other stuff,” McDaniel told JBJ. “So, you know, it’ll be a gift of love to the community.”

The enormity of this gift becomes even more apparent when McDaniel shares that sales of their spirits are down 90% in March, expressing that it is, of course, a huge challenge. “We do want to let everyone know that our gift shop at the distillery — just like any other liquor store — is open for business,” he says. “So folks staying at home, enjoying a cocktail (or two, or three), and [who] want to help support local small businesses, we would love for you to stop by and pick up a bottle of your favorite spirits.” 

 McDaniel is uncertain how long the distillery will continue this extra product production, but says it is possible they will continue past the quarantine period. “We are scaling up to make several hundred thousand units so depending on how long the COVID-19 crisis lasts, we may be out in a week or we may have some for a long time,” he says. As to whether he himself has been using his product he answers, “Absolutely. I keep a bottle in my car as well as at home.”

Jacksonville’s Manifest Distilling has begun producing hand sanitizer as well. As of April, 2020, General Manager Jim Webb says that they have been distributing it solely to institutional users, such as hospitals and first responders.

In a March Forbes article, Larry Olmsted says that “distilleries are well suited to easily switch production this way, [and] it could kickstart a vital trend.” According to distilling.com, as of February, 2020, there were just under 2,000 distilleries in this country, and another 1,000 worldwide. Olmsted adds that many of these are not small craft operators, but huge, high production factories. This idea is an example of potentially lasting innovations brought on by this health crisis. The community should show gratitude to pioneering and generous entrepreneurs like Webb and McDaniel.

St. Augustine Distillery, 112 Riberia St., (904) 825-4962, staugustinedistillery.com.

Get the recipe for hand sanitizer you can make at home here.

Pick up a copy of Arbus Magazine for more content and photos. You can even flip through past issues online or on the go!

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