Hand sanitiser: a heartbreaking lifeline for distilleries?

As the lockdown heads towards its sixth week, spirits distillers are beginning to take stock of the new normal – and in some cases, finding an unexpected silver lining

Words by Adam Lechmere

One of the early drinks-related stories of the coronavirus crisis was the dozens of distillers worldwide who turned their operations to the production of hand sanitiser. While initially this was done as a largely charitable venture, some are now finding the process rewarding in more unexpected ways.

For Oslo Håndverksdestilleri (OHD) in Norway, the exercise is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, as a craft operation with very tight margins, OHD sells the sanitiser – it can’t afford to donate the liquid as the big distilleries do. Now, though, it’s making more money from sanitiser (it is turning out 10,000l per week at the moment) than it did from its high-concept aquavits and gins. Indeed, OHD is seriously considering setting up a separate line for permanent production.

But it breaks their hearts, managing director Espen Tollefsen said, to see their fine 96% strength potato spirit adulterated with isopropanol to make it undrinkable. “We put [the name of] our brand on the finished product to make it a bit ‘crafted’ but it’s heartbreaking every time you do it. Still – this is the new normal.”

OHD hand sanitiser

Tell that story to Joe McGirr at Boatyard Distillery in Enniskillen in Northern Ireland, makers of IWSC award-winning gins, and he chuckles wryly in agreement. He’s making 4,000l a day of Boatyard Hand Sanitiser, in stylish, fully-branded atomisers which sell through supermarkets at £5-6 per 200ml, or £10 a litre.

“[The OHD experience] reflects where we are. There’s no love or passion to it. It eats into your soul, but it is a viable business, and we see it as a way of keeping our brand alive and out there.”

It eats into your soul, but it is a viable business

Boatyard took the process “very seriously”, McGirr said. Its product is tested and approved, certified to industry standards which allow him to boast on the label that it “kills 99% of all known bacteria”.

“We’re going to try to continue making it but we’re unsure of how it will work out. It’s not how we ever imagined growing the brand but I can see demand will continue.”

Boatyard Distillery hand sanitiser

At Warner’s Distillery in Norfolk, marketing director Peter Fairbrother took a different tack. His hand sanitiser is not branded Warner’s – “we decided that to brand it would take too much time and we just wanted to get it out there” – and it sells into the NHS to cover costs. Half is given away to local charities and care homes. At the same time he can see the rationale behind moving at least a part of the operation to permanent production, on the basis that there is definitely demand.

“We’re scratching our heads about it. Demand is obviously not being met by the people who should be meeting it, mainly because they are overwhelmed. So there is an ongoing opportunity, but I’m sure the supply-demand gap will balance out. So we’ll continue as long as we’re needed but probably no longer.”

Back at Boatyard, the lockdown has kickstarted the distiller’s relationships with bartenders. “We thought, let’s lean into the problem, turn it round, look at our relationships,” said McGirr. “Bartenders are our ambassadors and hundreds of thousands of them have been furloughed or made redundant.”

So Boatyard has connected with the bartending community by sending them ‘care packs’ at home, including its new chocolate made with Tanzanian cocoa and spent botanical gin waste – and its hand sanitiser. “The response has been amazing,” McGirr said.