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Local Whisky Distillery Steps Up to Make Hand Sanitizer during the COVID-19 Crisis

Published on Thursday, April 9, 2020 | 8:19 am
 

Our local Pasadena distillery, Stark Spirits, has temporarily changed the focus of its business from distilling whisky and other spirits to distilling hand sanitizer.

Stark Spirits will provide hand sanitizer for first responders who are not in an environment that is habitually hygienic, but must come in close contact with the public in whatever condition they find them. Greg Starks and Karen Robinson-Stark are providing a small donation of the hand sanitizer to the Altadena Sheriff’s stations, Fire Department and Paramedics.

Co-owner/distiller Karen Robinson-Stark said that they approached the Altadena first responders because they are their neighborhood first responders.

The recipe they are making is approved by the World Health Organization (WHO). WHO and the US government agencies regulating spirit production and hand sanitizer, the Trade and Tobacco Bureau (TTB) and the Federal Drug Administration, approved the production of hand sanitizer by distilleries because of the extreme shortage of antiseptic sanitary supplies.

After approaching first responders in Altadena, they contacted the first responders in Northwest Pasadena where their business is located. They learned that the Pasadena Police Department has 66 police units, and the fire department units, and the paramedic units…donations were not possible for so many. It was a relief that the city of Pasadena contacted them for purchasing the sanitizer, and pledged it  for the Pasadena Police department, Pasadena Fire Department and Paramedics first. After taking care of public safety. the city will provide sanitizer  for their other departments that perform their work in public environments.

“Because manufacturing ethanol for spirits is our business, we are in a unique position to make the WHO-recipe hand sanitizer. Ordinarily, hand sanitizer is 70-76 percent denatured alcohol. Because of our type of license we must produce 80 percent ethanol, 160-proof alcohol” said Greg Starks. “There was some concern voiced that our alcohol is drinkable. The recipe requires the addition of glycerol and hydrogen peroxide–quite an unpalatable beverage, don’t you agree?”

Since the news of Stark Spirits’ new manufacturing product got out, they now have a waiting list, which they are prioritizing by risk and vulnerability. The Starks prioritized local vulnerable populations after the local safety responders. This includes an agency that has many local nursing homes, the Westside Regional Center’s residences for the developmentally disabled, residences run by a local mental health agency and a hospice agency.

The next priority is for agencies and businesses that are in constant contact with the public. These include the local US Post Offices, the Civilian Conservation Corps which is providing on-site auxiliary services for hospitals, a farm workers facility and several delivery services.

They also have a list of individuals who have approached them. Karen pointed out, “Unfortunately, the quantity we can make is not huge, so we do not believe we can provide for the general public anytime soon.  We expect to make only about 50 gallons at a time, which is 200 quarts.” Every agency and business and individual that is on the waiting list has been informed that the priority is the level of vulnerability and risk, which can affect anyone’s place on the waiting list.

It’s not only Stark Spirits that’s trying to make a difference, Greag said that they and other distillers in California belong to the California Artisan Distillers Guild (CADG), and many members are making hand sanitizer. The CADG is part of the American Craft Distillers Association.  Both the national and the state organization actively engaged in providing hand sanitizer–and promoting changes in regulations that facilitate that.

Stark Spirits biggest problem is ones that the rest of the world is facing, availability of supplies.

“The most difficult hurdle is finding containers for the sanitizer,” said Greg Starks.  “We normally deal with glass and can package in glass liter bottles we have on hand.  However, most people want a plastic container. We just received a mixed shipment of five gallon jerry style containers, gallon, half gallon and quart containers, all HDPE rated for ethanol. We wish we could provide spray bottles, but they just are not to be had across the United States. All the manufacturers are backlogged.”

The reason Stark Spirits can even make hand sanitizer is because the federal government is allowing distilled spirits producers to make ethanol that is not the same as what is ordinarily used to make hand sanitizer. The FDA has loosened the ingredient used for sanitizer produced by distilleries, but not the requirements for labeling.  This includes a list of ingredients, product percentage of alcohol and safety warnings.

“It has been suggested that the sanitizer could be transferred to well-washed household, 409-type containers from the bulk containers that their employers have purchased.  “Although desperate times call for desperate measures, as they say, it not only seems quite strange for those in need of the sanitizer to BYO spray containers, but we have concerns about repurposing containers originally labeled with other products.”

“Although any container we sell will have the FDA-approved label, what assurance would we have if containers are brought from the employee’s home for filling at the work site? It’s a knotty problem,” Karen Robinson-Stark said. The Starks are concerned that there could be problems if a container did not have a label specific to their sanitizer. They are wondering if they should provide purchasers of large quantity containers with rolls of labels. The repurposed containers would have the original labeling on the container marked out and a Stark Spirits label affixed, similar to UPS accepting reused boxes as long as their label is prominent.

There’s more to the story of distilleries making sanitizer. The usual alcohol used in sanitizer is denatured ethanol, according to Karen.  Denatured alcohol is by law made unfit for human consumption. Distilled spirits producers make undenatured ethanol. It is purer, higher proof, and it’s made to drink. The TTB, the federal agency that regulates alcohol production, is allowing this drinkable alcohol to be used for sanitizer–and isn’t taxing it, a great relief to distilleries.

However, the FDA, allowing this emergency production, initially required that the 80 percent drinkable alcohol in sanitizer be made undrinkable by adding unpalatable substances. However, the various distillery organizations pointed out that to make sanitizer at all requires the addition of glycol and hydrogen peroxide, unpalatable ingredients by most people’s standards for their spirit beverages. Fortunately, the FDA decided this was reasonable, and so distilleries across the USA are doing what they can in this health care crisis.

Another set of regulations that needed to be relaxed due to the health crisis, explains Karen, is the transporting of high proof alcohol, flammable by nature. The Department of Transportation was not inclined initially to permit hazardous materials to be transported in quantity by drivers without a commercial license and hazmat certification. “The stuff really is flammable,” she said, and sensible precautions must be observed.” Due to the unprecedented need, the DOT has issued regulations that permit non-commercial, non-certified drivers to transport in quantities not exceeding 66 pounds.

They also can transport up to 119 pounds, but must have familiarized themselves with the hazmat regulations and take care to post visible notification that they are transporting hazardous materials. Anything over 119 pounds continues to require a commercial driving license and a hazardous materials certificate. Karen said. “We can sell 50 gallons in a barrel to organizations that can provide a delivery driver who has the required hazardous materials certification.

“We want to do as much as we can to safeguard our first responders and those most vulnerable to the virus. I hope, though, that everyone realizes that sanitizer is not their most protective option. I wish we could manufacture face masks, the number one safeguard for the general public! Since we can’t do that, we’ll make our contribution to preventing the spread of this dreadful disease with hand sanitizer.”

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