What do wine and hand sanitizer have in common? The answer: alcohol.
When sales of spirits dropped in Australia while the country was fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, some distilleries switched their production to spray and sanitizer.
“We are normally making gin and vodka in Canberra, and six weeks ago when the coronavirus crisis started, we began making hand sanitizer,” said Colombine Courouble, brand ambassador of the Underground Spirits Canberra.
“The main ingredient for hand sanitizer is alcohol which we have lots of or could make a lot of,” she explained.
With its label a snowflake-shaped map of Canberra city, Underground Spirits Canberra produces six kinds of premium gins and vodkas.
The founder Toby Angstmann, who is a doctor and obstetrician, saw the demand for hand sanitizer when Australia fights against #COVID-19.
At the same time, spirit sales plunged. “A profit on spirit sale was from the bars, and the bars are closed,” said Courouble.
Therefore, starting from the end of March, the distillery turned from producing gin and vodka to hand sanitizer. “It was literally from a Friday we were producing vodkas and by Monday we went to start mass producing hand sanitizer,” said Stewart Dobson, head distiller.
But the process was not as easy as it sounds.
They used the recipe recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), with high level alcohol, Dobson said.
He said that some wineries and distilleries sold their products, which were hard to sell during the COVID-19 period, to them at very low prices, or even gave them for free.
“So we re-distill it to make ethanol to be able to produce hand sanitizer and then sourcing everything else we needed like vessels, plastic containers, and the hydrogen peroxide,” he said.
The eight workers from the distillery also learned laws and regulations regarding dangerous goods, because of high concentration of the spray of alcohol, usually 70 or 80%.
They also taught themselves WHO and Therapeutic Goods Administration regulations, as well as all the chemistry behind making the new products.
Angstmann brought some knowledge as a doctor into the new business. They managed to use the original wine-producing equipment to make hand sanitizer and spray.
When the workshop is filled with the smell of alcohol as always, only by close examination could one find out the secret: stills designed for flavor and taste of spirits were re-figured for high levels of alcohol. “But it doesn’t taste very nice,” joked the head distiller.
They produce about 5,000 liters of hand sanitizer and spray per week, which, through the Australian Capital Territory Emergency Services Agency, have mostly been sent to frontline medical staff and government agencies under the brand AUS.
“With everything we did until now for the emergency services agency was at cost,” said Courouble. “So we’re not making any profit from it.”
They also started online selling of hygiene products, along with their wines. Dobson found that to support them, people who purchased hand sanitizer would always buy some gins as well.
When asked if the hand sanitizer business will be preserved, he said: “I hope not. Because I want that for us to be able to produce gins and vodkas, the bars can open, restaurants can open and things go back to some sort of normality.”