Kentucky distillers churn out sanitizer in fighting virus
FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky’s whiskey industry is always looking for new twists for its spirits products, but its inventiveness took a gooey turn when the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Distillers in the state that’s home to about 95% of the world’s bourbon production scrambled to help meet emerging demand for hand sanitizer, pivoting nimbly to supply the disinfectant to front-line workers in the fight against the virus.
So far, distilleries aligned with the Kentucky Distillers’ Association have produced and donated about 125,000 gallons (473,000 liters) of hand sanitizer across the state, KDA President Eric Gregory said Wednesday.
It’s a natural fit because sanitizer is an alcohol-based product, and the temporary repurposing of stills for something everyone is suddenly clamoring for is manageable — which may explain why more than 700 distillers have stepped up to produce hand sanitizer for front-line personnel and agencies, according to the Distilled Spirits Council.
The output by KDA-member distilleries in Kentucky alone equals more than 630,000 “fifths” of whiskey, or 750 ml bottles, Gregory said.
And more sanitizer is on the way, even as whiskey production continues.
At Wilderness Trail Distillery, one of three stills was converted into sanitizer production within a day.
“When this came about, we immediately saw a need within our community as things were unfolding. It was kind of second nature to us,” distillery co-owner Shane Baker said. “We just kind of flipped into action. We knew what we had to do. We knew we had the capabilities of doing it.”
Since early March, the Danville distillery has produced about 40,000 gallons (150,000 liters) of hand sanitizer, Baker said. Its product has gone to hospitals, long-term care facilities and first responders across Kentucky, and to a handful of hospitals in Indiana and Tennessee.
“Many distillers have done so in response to dire requests from local hospitals, first responders and others who are essential to winning the fight against COVID-19,” said Chris Swonger, the Distilled Spirits Council’s president and CEO. “These distillers are filling a badly needed service to our country.”
In Kentucky, distillers big and small have joined the supply chain.
Jim Beam, the world’s largest bourbon producer, is making sanitizer at its Global Innovation Center at its Clermont operation. It fills about 1,500 1.75-liter bottles of sanitizer each production day, said Eric Schuetzler, the spirits company’s vice president of global innovation.
Beam has distributed sanitizer in several Kentucky counties and in Illinois. Jim Beam is the flagship brand of Chicago-based Beam Suntory. The company this week donated 2000 gallons (7,500 liters) of its sanitizer to support health care workers and first responders in Illinois.
Schuetzler said sanitizer production has become a cooperative effort among distilleries accustomed to competing fiercely for market share and shelf space at bars, restaurants and liquor stores.
“We’re sharing information about formulas, what’s working, where did you guys find that raw material,” he said.
Heaven Hill, the producer of Evan Williams bourbon, said it has distributed 100,000 liters of hand sanitizer produced at several facilities since March 23.
At some distilleries, employees typically tasked with running visitors’ centers and giving tours were among the workers reassigned to sanitizer duty.
Distillers are able to produce sanitizer because the main ingredient is alcohol, Gregory said. KDA members are following Food and Drug Administration guidelines for production and labeling that are consistent with the World Health Organization sanitizer formulation, he said.
But the new production forced distillers to scramble for ingredients such as glycerol and hydrogen peroxide. At first, Baker’s distillery was paying for all the extra ingredients, but now about 40% of the supplies are being donated.
Baker said he’s not keeping count of the costs absorbed by Wilderness Trail in making sanitizer.
“I really don’t know the number and I just kind of said, ’Hey, this is something we won’t talk about right now’ because I’m sure we would scratch our heads at it,” he said. “But what we’re focused on is trying to take care of people.”
Baker said he doesn’t see sanitizer as a permanent product for his growing distillery.
“It’s really around the need,” he said. “As long as there is a need within our community or our state, we will do our best to hang in there and continue to support.”