From the start of the epidemic right down to this day, certain products have been hard to get a hold of — toilet paper and hand sanitizers among them. We haven’t heard of any local TP makers, but two types of local businesses have thrown themselves into the sanitizer business: distilleries and herbalists, both of whom have access to high-proof alcohol as a part of their regular business practices.
“Once all this started and we went into shelter in place, I found that on most of the distillery forums people were talking about sanitizer,” said Timo Marshall of Spirit Works Distillery in Sebastopol. “We were already producing our own internal surface sanitizer and so it just seemed like an obvious next step, especially since there seemed to be a shortage of sanitizer out in the community.”
Marshall said he was under a lot pressure from people to start producing hand sanitizer as soon as possible, but there were several regulatory hoops to jump through. Like wineries, distilleries are governed by the TTB (the federal Tax and Trade Bureau) and the ABC (the state of California’s Alcoholic Beverage Control). In addition, because Spirit Works was looking to make a product that would be used on people’s hands as a sanitizer, they also fell under the purview of the FDA.
Marshall said that even though the various agencies had tried to streamline the process during this time of emergency, “It was a full-time job to research all the regulations and insure that we’re legally compliant ... Everyone was working in the right direction, but the red tape is unbelievably difficult to cut through.”
Different distillers take different approaches to production
Marshall produced his first batch of sanitizer two weeks ago. He said they’re using a recipe for a hand sanitizer “that is put out by the FDA, which follows a recipe by the World Health Organization.”
For sanitizer to be effective, it has to be at least 60% ethyl alcohol or 70% isopropyl alcohol by volume. Distillers make ethyl alcohol.
Unlike many local distillers, Marshall said Spirit Works didn’t actually distill the alcohol they used in their hand sanitizer — they simply bought ethyl alcohol in bulk.
“It was easier for us and way, way less costly to buy all the ingredients and act as a funnel, putting them together, rather than distilling it ourselves,” he said. “It takes us 10 minutes to receive it, whereas it would take us eight or nine days to make one third of that batch.”
Spirit Works sold about half of their first batch wholesale to Sebastopol Hardware, and they donated the rest.
“The other half we were able to donate to the local fire station, the local police station and the local senior centers. We were able to donate enough to them that they were able to distribute it where they saw fit as well, so it actually went pretty far and wide, which was great.”
Marshall, who is about to make his second batch of hand sanitizer, said “I’m just very proud that we are able to contribute in some way to our local community here. It’s important for everyone to do their bit in times like this. We have that ability to help out in this way, and we’re very proud to be able to do that.”
In Healdsburg, Young & Yonder is also producing hand sanitizer. They started with some high-test alcohol they had on hand and then began to distill other batches from whatever they could get their hands on, including wine.
“We knew that there was a need,” Sarah Opatz, one of the owners, said. “All the pharmacies, all the stores, everywhere, it was sold out. We had some alcohol that we were not currently using that was high-enough proof to be blended into hand sanitizer. So we switched gears right away and started using the alcohol for hand sanitizer instead of making spirits. We started giving it away to the community here locally and donating it to fire departments, hospitals and anyone else in need.”
“We were giving it away for free in the beginning, but then we just became so short on supplies and started running low on alcohol and peroxide and glycerin, and all that stuff so we ended up charging just so we could cover our costs to keep doing it,” she said.
Now it’s available for purchase. A 750 milliliter bottle — the same bottles they use for their vodka – is $35. They also include a mini-bottle of sanitizer with a purchase of vodka.
Opatz said that since vodka can be made from all kinds of things, their hand sanitizer has had various bases: sometimes the alcohol was made from corn, sometimes from grain, sometimes from grapes.
“Now we have teamed up with Alley 6, which is another local distillery here, and have sourced a grape-based alcohol that we’re re-distilling to get it really high proof, and then we make the sanitizer from that,” she said.
In Windsor, Brandon Matthies of Sonoma Brothers Distilling, is also distilling alcohol for sanitizer. Sonoma Brothers’ sanitizer is made from vodka and is 80% alcohol.
Matthies said they have donated some to local homeless organizations, but for the most part they are selling it.
“We’re selling it for a pretty minimal amount as a way to keep our doors open and our employees paid,” Matthies said.
“We’re trying to focus on selling it locally in the community,” he said. “We’ve sold to a lot of different care homes, hospitals, mainly health care providers and a lot of the essential businesses that need it for their employees and just to keep in business.”
An herbal alternative high in alcohol
Distillers aren’t the only ones who have suddenly found themselves doing a booming business, making and selling hand sanitizer. Kim Manley, the owner of KM Herbals in Tomales, has been in business since 1992 and offers more than 250 high-end herbal body, haircare and wellness products on her website. But she never made hand sanitizer until this spring.
“I’ve just never been a hand sanitizer person,” Manley said.
But then, at the beginning of the pandemic, a friend who worked as a pre-school teacher asked Manley to develop a hand sanitizer for her. One of Manley’s employees brought in a whole bunch of commercial hand sanitizers. Manley took one look at the ingredients and knew she could do better.
The trick was bringing it in at a reasonable cost.
“We’re known as a more expensive brand,” she said. “We do everything by hand. We make all of our own herbal infusions. We grow a lot of the herbs here, we handpick them, we dry them, we infuse them, we strain them ... I buy only organic and wild-crafted raw materials.”
Manley chose several essential oils with anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties — tea tree, rosemary, lemongrass — and blended them with a grape-based alcohol and other ingredients to make a hand sanitizer with 65% alcohol.
It’s one of three products she designed for the epidemic – including a handwashing soap ($15), hand sanitizer ($20) and high-proof aromatizing spray ($30).
The hand sanitizer in particular has been flying off the shelves, Manley said.
“We have always been a wholesale manufacturer and that has a certain pace to it. Selling retail is something else,” she said. “It’s been crazy,” especially since she sent all her employees home to shelter in place and is now one-woman show.
And her main job?
“Packing up and shipping hand sanitizer,” she said. “People can’t get enough of it.”