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Craft distilleries across Arizona are banding together to help produce much-needed hand sanitizer for hospitals, first responders and the general public after the federal government reached out to the industry for help amid product scarcity. 

The Arizona Craft Distillers Guild estimates their members have produced, distributed and donated 2,500 gallons of liquid sanitizer for use by front line workers and hospitals, according to Garry Elam, president of the Arizona Craft Distillers Guild and co-owner of Elgin Winery and Distillery. 

“What we’re producing is the liquid sanitizer that you find in hospitals and EMT kits that provide a hand rub rather than the gel we’re most used to seeing at grocery stores,” Elam said.

There are currently seven guild member distilleries participating, Elam said, with three distilleries located in Sothern Arizona: Thunder Canyon Brewstillery, Whiskey Del Bac and Town Under Black Distillery. 

Federal Drug Association guidelines require liquid sanitizer to be above 94.8 percent alcohol for healthcare use. Since most guild member distilleries are unable to distill their spirits to such a high percentage, they’re offering either denatured alcohol (undrinkable spirits) or a fermented beer-wash to be refined to 95 percent alcohol at Elam’s Elgin Distillery. 

“We have a rectification column on our still that allows us to produce alcohol to (the 95 percent) level. Whiskey Del Bac and Thunder Canyon have pot stills that will get (the alcohol) to that 75 to 80 percent range,” Elam said. “So what they’re doing is distilling product then sending it to us for further refinement and then we send it back to them to distribute. It’s a fully denatured hand sanitizer that complies with FDA guidelines.”

Thunder Canyon Brewstillery has donated much of their rum production and then switched to fermenting sugar and yeast to produce a beer-wash that can be distilled to the required proof. The brewery and Elgin Distillery have corresponding production capacity--Thunder Canyon has a 500-gallon fermentation tank and Elgin has a 500-gallon still--to produce huge batches of hand sanitizer. Thunder Canyon Brewstillery owner Steve Tracy said about 500 gallons of his beer-wash will produce about 50 gallons of liquid sanitizer after distillation.

“We’re using sugar with a very aggressive yeast so we can ferment all that sugar into alcohol,” Tracy said. “We’ll transfer it to (Elam’s) distillery down in Elgin and they’ll run it through their still and create about 50 gallons.”

Fermentation takes about a week, Tracy said, and he is trying to stay a week ahead so they always have beer-wash for distillation. Thunder Canyon also tapped into their aging barreled spirits that would otherwise be bottled and sold in a few years to help out with demand.  

“We’re trying to stay ahead so I always have wash for the still. We did take some of our other spirits in storage and turned it all into hand sanitizer,” Tracy said. “We’ve got rum to drink but right now the problem is getting hand sanitizer to everybody. That’s our focus right now.” 

Hamilton Distillers, makers of Whiskey Del Bac, is also helping out by denaturing and donating their whiskey which comes off the still at 72 percent and is then sent to Elam’s distillery for further refinement. Stephen Paul, owner of Hamilton Distillers, said he is amazed by the camaraderie of the distiller’s guild members working hard to produce sanitizer during the pandemic. 

“It’s really cool the distillers guild members have got together and are rallied to start producing (sanitizer),” Paul said. “What we’re going to keep doing is proving our 72 percent ethanol (alcohol) and denature it.”

Local hospitals have been frantically searching for medical-grade sanitizer in recent weeks since the coronavirus outbreak began stateside last March. When a shipment of sanitizer was delayed last week, Northwest Medical Center reached out to Whiskey Del Bac, according to Veronica Apodaca, director of marketing at Northwest Hospital.

“After an expected shipment of hand sanitizer was delayed earlier this week, we reached out to several local distilleries about the possibility of making hand sanitizer, and Whiskey Del Bac was gracious enough to provide us with some,” Apodaca said in an email.  “We appreciate their efforts and donation and have it on hand if we need to use it in the future.”

While Paul is glad to help out in such an unprecedented time, he said he hopes they may be able to recoup some money to help keep his distillery afloat after donating so much product that would’ve been for sale in the future.

“We haven’t charged for what we’re doing. TMC has offered to pay something, which is great because we operate at a loss anyway,” Paul said. “If we can get paid occasionally by people and places that can afford it, like hospitals, that would be awesome.”

Elam also said he’s worried about the distilling industry years in the future when they won’t have a product to sell distilled and barreled in 2020. He said his distillery alone has donated around $65,000 worth of brandy to be made into sanitizer that would’ve been for sale in five years. 

“In order to make whiskey, rum or brandy it needs to distill and sit in barrels,” Elam said. “So there will be no 2020 brandy for us five years from now. Whiskey Del Bac has been giving up a lot of their barreled whiskey and I know Thunder Canyon going to be hurting after giving up their rum.”

To Elam’s knowledge, there isn’t a government program that guarantees distilleries around the nation will be able to recoup the cost of the product they’ve donated to produce sanitizer.

“At present, there doesn’t seem to be anything the government is going to remediate us. I would assume the cost of production is probably more than most of the distilleries make in a quarter,” Elam said. “But our members understand we are pillars of our communities and we have a responsibility to those communities right now.”