Is that Allagash White in your hand sanitizer?
Last April, it might have been. Or perhaps it was Maine Beer Company’s Lunch, Bissell Brothers’ Substance, or some other award-winning craft beer. When the tasting rooms and restaurants shut down in mid-March, hundreds of barrels of fermenting beer were headed for the sewer unless some better use could be found. With on-premise consumption plummeting to zero, kegging the beer would be a waste of effort — it would expire before it could sell.
Meanwhile, in the early days of the COVID shutdown, panicked consumers were stripping shelves and emptying warehouses of sanitizer, leaving hospitals and first responders scrambling to find new suppliers. Some liquor distilleries in other states jumped into action, turning out bottles of hand sanitizer before the federal government granted approval. Distillers in Maine were more cautious and reached out to the appropriate federal agencies for permission.
“We needed to do it safely, legally, and as efficiently as possible,” said Jesse Lupo, owner of Mossy Ledge Spirits, in Etna.
On March 24, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted permission for distilleries to manufacture one specific sanitizer formula for over-the-counter sale. Two days later, the Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) declared that sanitizer made by distilleries would be tax-exempt. Nationwide, more than 800 distilleries began producing ethanol for sanitizer.
The University of Maine created a response team to coordinate the distribution of sanitizer from distilleries to medical providers. By the end of April, 2,800 gallons of sanitizer had been distributed to 51 medical facilities around the state. Much of it was donated; some was sold at cost.
For Topher Mallory, co-founder of Split Rock Distilling, in Newcastle, the pivot to sanitizer had two goals: “Let’s see if we can find a way to keep people in jobs and help our community.” Mallory redirected employees from both Split Rock and its sister company, Royal Rose, which makes organic syrups, to the sanitizer effort. Manufacturing sanitizer helped Split Rock and many other Maine distillers avoid furloughing workers.
Packaging was one of the biggest challenges the distillers faced. Bob Hilscher, Chief Operating Officer of Maine Craft Distilling, on Portland’s East End, recalled sending out their first batch of We Got This–brand sanitizer in glass bottles. But UMaine’s Cooperative Extension soon helped acquire 10,000 plastic bottles donated by Oakhurst Dairy, and another 10,000 from Nestlé.
Jordan Milne, founder of Portland’s Hardshore Distilling, said his company was ultimately able to pump out more sanitizer than demand required. Hardshore’s huge vodka-column still was the final stage for unfinished product originating from a wide variety of sources. Allagash, Maine Beer Company, Shipyard, Oxbow, Rising Tide, Bissell Brothers and Foundation Brewing all contributed beer to the effort. Several Maine distilleries, including New England Distilling, Stroudwater, Three of Strong and Liquid Riot (all in Portland), as well as the Sebago Lake Distillery, in Gardiner, reduced those beers to more concentrated alcohol through the first stage of distillation, known as the stripping run. That product was then sent to Hardshore, which had the capacity to reduce it to the FDA-mandated concentration.
Milne noted that FDA and TTB approvals to make sanitizer will expire, and he does not expect to apply for renewals. Split Rock’s Mallory doesn’t plan to produce more sanitizer either. “We didn’t think it would be a long-term thing,” he said.
However, both Mossy Ledge Spirits and Maine Craft Distilling intend to remain in the germ-murder business. Lupo said Mossy Ledge eschewed major distribution channels, preferring to sell its sanitizer in “mom-and-pop stores in all corners of the state.” But now, “schools and bus companies have been coming to us” seeking more product, he said. The large-capacity still installed when Mossy Ledge began allows the company to continue making sanitizer without disrupting its production of spirits.
Maine Craft Distilling expects to stay in the sanitizer sector for the next few years. “We’ll ride the wave while we can,” said Hilscher. They’ve arranged to supply North Yarmouth Academy and other schools and colleges in Maine with their product, and are partnering with out-of-state companies to package sanitizer for them. MCD has also launched Zani, a new brand of liquid and gel sanitizers.
“Maine’s a place to support local,” said Hilscher. “Just like we’re a craft distillery, we can be a craft sanitizer.”