Distilleries Racing to Make Hand Sanitizer During Coronavirus-Induced Shortage

Many New Jersey distilleries have shifted their production away from spirits to hand sanitizer to help fight COVID-19—and are giving it away for free. Here, Claremont Distillery founder Tim Koether discusses the current reality.

Left, Claremont Distilled Spirits lead chemist Sarafina Cartelli hard at work producing more hand sanitizer. Right, the finished product. Photos courtesy of Claremont Distilled Spirits

At 4,000 gallons fermentation capacity and 1,000 gallons of distillation capacity, Claremont Distillery in Fairfield is the largest craft distillery in New Jersey. For the last two weeks, Claremont Distillery founder and CEO Tim Koether and his team have been busy turning a distillery into a small factory for hand sanitizer.

As the fight against COVID-19 continues, and with national shortages of necessities like masks and hand sanitize, Koether and his team are part of a swath of New Jersey distilleries that have turned their production capacity to coronavirus response (other distilleries include Nauti Spirits Distillery in Cape May, Asbury Park Distilling Company, Train Wreck Distillery in Mount Holly, and Lazy Eye Distillery in Atlantic County). And since the FDA announced last Friday they won’t take action against firms that produced hand sanitizer in response to COVID-19, it’s likely that more distilleries will join.*

We caught up with Koether to ask when the decision was made to start hand sanitizer production, how the process differs from, say, vodka production, and what we can do as a community to assist or support distilleries like Claremont.

Table Hopping: Are you also still producing alcohol or is everything now dedicated to hand sanitizer?
Tim Koether: All we are producing now is hand sanitizer. We even took alcohol that was waiting to be bottled and re-distilled it to get it to 190 proof.

TH: When did you officially begin production?
TK: It was really [more than a] week ago, Monday, or maybe even over the weekend. And even at that time, legally, we couldn’t do it because the FDA governs the manufacture of [hand sanitizer] and distilleries prior to this emergency couldn’t do it. We’d actually made a decision that, no matter what, we were going to do it and deal with the ramifications later. But I will tell you I got a little bit of comfort knowing I’d been contacted by police, responders, FBI asking us for it. If I had gotten in trouble, I had some good people on my side!

TH: They actually reached out to you guys, asking you to make it?
TK: We’re actually working with the FBI in the state of New Jersey. They’re coordinating with the county Offices of Emergency Management (OEMs) to get product to first responders in all counties of the state.

TH: When did you first get the inkling that this would be a need?
TK: Several weeks ago when my wife couldn’t find it. And my wife’s a hand sanitizer addict. She’s like, “There’s none anywhere. I can’t find it.” That was really when I started thinking about it. I just never thought there would be such a shortage. It’s unbelievable. The number of people that are in need, it’s frightening.

TH: Do you have any sense of the shortage in New Jersey?
TK: I have honestly no clue, but obviously demand has risen exponentially so all of the big manufacturers can’t keep up. They can’t even come close. I would say demand must be up at least a hundredfold.

TH: You weren’t legally set up to make hand sanitizer. Was it just the FDA you were worried about?
TK: Actually, we had two issues. We have the FDA issue, and we also deal with the TTB. And they also came out, also on Thursday night, saying they would wave the excise tax on this product for distilleries.

TH: Can you explain what an excise tax is?
TK: Basically for every gallon of alcohol we produce, there’s an excise tax on it. We file monthly reports. They monitor it very closely! But they came out and basically said “If you’re gonna make hand sanitizer, it’s not going to be subject to it.”

TH: How did the shift to hand sanitizer work?
TK: The largest ingredient in hand sanitizer is alcohol. And because we make vodka, we basically have the ability to produce 190-plus proof alcohol. And since corn is actually the cheapest ingredient, we’ve just been doing very large corn mashes, fermenting them, taking that, and distilling it into a 190 proof alcohol. Then we are combining that with an aloe concentrate—we couldn’t find aloe gel on the market anymore. So we have a concentrate, and we mix that with xanthan gum, which is pretty much in everything. It’s in gravy! It thickens it. That and glycerin.

TH: So it helps that you make vodka, then?
TK: Part of the reason we have the ability to do this is that, legally speaking, to call a product vodka, it needs to come off the still at 190 proof, meaning a true grain-neutral spirit. When we make vodka, we lower that down with water to 80 proof. Here we don’t.

TH: What is it like in terms of labor?
TK: It’s very labor-intensive! Honestly, we don’t have the equipment that would allow us to do this very quickly. We’re pretty much filling up 50-gallon vats at a time. It’s a lot of hands-on work. Initially we were filling bottles with funnels, but actually, a company has provided us with a bottling machine just for this.

TH: Is the donated bottling machine helping?
TK: We literally got it just yesterday [Tuesday]. We have it set up. It makes it so much faster. We’re giving five-gallon pails to the OEMs, which make it easy. But we were given four-ounce bottles by a local company, and we’re hoping to have about twenty thousand of those filled in the next day or so. We already started and have several thousand already.

TH: Are you selling it? I’d imagine it’s going at a very competitive price.
TK: We’re not selling it. We’re only asking for donations, a penny, a quarter, whatever you can do. But we’re giving it away. Any money we get is being put back into purchasing ingredients to make more. This is not a for-profit venture.

TH: And you said a lot of your hand sanitizer is going to first responders, police, the FBI?
TK: Basically, the FBI is handling the first responders. The reality of it is they have not been able to get it. We have a lot of first responders just showing up at the distillery. And the general public, too, just showing up, and we’re giving it to them. People out there are infirm. We’re getting it to them. I cannot tell you the number of emails and phone calls I’ve received in the past three days, it’s tragic. Everyone has a story. And there are certainly those that are in critical need and high-risk, and we’re trying to prioritize those people. If they can’t get here, we have people who’ve volunteered to make deliveries doing that for us. When I leave here at night, I’m leaving hand sanitizer on people’s doorsteps.

TH: It sounds very much like “all hands on deck,” all the time.
TK: I would like to say we’re doing this 24-7, but we do need to sleep at some point… I can’t thank my employees enough. They’re just the greatest people. At one point, we were here for 60 hours. I literally had employees sleeping in their cars, on couches that we have here, just so we could stay up and running.

TH: I would hope that you’re getting some love—and maybe a pizza delivery—from the community?
TK: People have been dropping off cakes and cookies. All things we shouldn’t be eating! But then again, it’s tough times.

*None of the distilleries newly making hand sanitizer have been inspected by the FDA for that purpose, nor has the hand sanitizer itself been inspected. The CDC recommends you use a hand sanitizer with a minimum 60% alcohol content. The CDC also still stands by the primary efficacy of regular old soap and water.

Claremont Distillery is located at 25 Commerce Road (Unit K) in Fairfield. If you’re planning on stopping by to pick up some hand sanitizer, they recently updated pick-up times on their Facebook page. You can also give them a call (if they have a free, and sanitized, hand to pick up) at 973-227-7027.

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