When Johnny Cubelic and his fellow founders of Dread River Distilling Company began their operation about a year ago, they never thought they would be bottling hand sanitizer to meet a need born from a global pandemic.
“I didn’t imagine we would be at this juncture two weeks ago,” Cubelic said March 23 at the distillery on Birmingham’s Southside.
Hand sanitizer, the alcohol-based gel-like clear liquid, has been coveted like gold in the past several weeks as the coronavirus has made its way around the globe, across the country and into the state of Alabama.
The product has flown off store shelves as anxious people rushed in and bought all they could get. That demand has left some hospitals and first responders with a depleted supply.
But some distillers across the state have swept in, trying to fill the void.
Gibson Distilling in Headland posted on its Facebook page that it has supplied 125 gallons of hand sanitizer to the Wiregrass region of southeast Alabama through its Project Hand San. Currently, Gibson has run out of its inventory.
“Due to supply constraints, we ask that each visitor limit their request to one 8-ounce bottle and ask for a donation to the Headland First Responders,” the post reads. “We will post here on Facebook and Instagram when we have more available.”
Jimmy Sharp and his family own John Emerald Distilling in Opelika. He said their operation jumped onto the hand sanitizer wave hard and fast.
“Of course, when all this emerged, we thought, ‘Everybody’s having trouble getting hand sanitizer and we’ve got the raw ingredients to make that minus a couple little items,’” he said. “We’ve quickly jumped on it. It was probably last Saturday when I kind of got around the fact that there’s a need we might could help fill it.”
Sharp and his employees add a denaturing element like hydrogen peroxide so they’re not giving away drinkable alcohol. They add glycerin so it feels more like regular hand sanitizer.
“It’s not hard to make,” said Sharp, who is in the leadership group of the Alabama Brewers Guild. “We use a neutral grain spirit as the alcohol. And that’s a base alcohol that we keep on hand because we use it as a base for our gin.
“It comes to us as 190 proof alcohol corn-based spirit and then we can do whatever with it,” he said. “Luckily, the feds came out with some guidelines really quickly on how to treat it, how to handle it right legally in terms of how the feds tax us and regulate us.”
The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) posted the relaxed regulations on its website.
“Due to the coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, the acting administrator has found that it is necessary or desirable to waive provisions of internal revenue law with regard to distilled spirits,” the post reads in part. “Any existing distilled spirits permittee (DSP) therefore can immediately commence production of hand sanitizer or distilled spirits (ethanol) for use in hand sanitizer, as described below, without having to obtain authorization first.”
John Emerald Distilling initially gave to individuals the hand sanitizer it made, but the demand has grown with hospitals and firefighters saying they need it, too.
“We’ve run through everything we had right now (because) we had such a huge response,” Sharp said. “We’ve got more coming now. Once it gets here, we’ll split it up. We’ll initially reach out to these different groups that are in need.”
Blood Centers of America (BCA) was an early recipient. “They are getting a large chunk from us when the next delivery comes in to help keep hands on at the different blood donation sites,” he said, adding he hopes other distillers will help.
Dread River’s Cubelic said the notion of making hand sanitizer came to him when he saw a story about an Oregon distillery taking a byproduct of its high-proof drinking alcohol to meet a growing need in a neighboring state.
“Washington particularly was hit pretty hard by this earlier than most of the rest of the country,” Cubelic said. “I said, ‘That’s something that we might want to look at as this continues to get more serious.’”
“More serious” came within just a few days as cases of coronavirus infection spread nationwide. And with that has come social distancing orders to slow the spread.
Dread River’s business includes a restaurant and bar, which were shut down for on-site eating and drinking by the chief medical officer of Jefferson County. Curbside pickup of its hand sanitizer and its restaurant products continues.
“We’re kind of holding on for dear life and doing what we can to help,” Cubelic said. “We haven’t furloughed any of our employees; we’re having them come to work.
“No one that is helping on our side has ever questioned helping,” he continued. “They are just jumping in and starting to bottle what we can. We’re buying bottles where we can find them.”
In just the last 12 hours, we have received a huge volume of support and inquires for our sanitizer. In the coming days, we will have a hand sanitizer geared more toward individual use. For now, however, we are… https://t.co/UPppIu8tqM
— Dread River Distilling Co. (@dreadriverco) March 19, 2020
Individuals and businesses have donated bottles in which the hand sanitizer can be packaged. On March 23, Dread River began shifting its alcohol production capacity solely to hand sanitizer.
“We’re paying our employees, but we can’t do that for very much longer,” Cubelic said. “We’re not a charity, and at a certain point, no matter how many bottles get donated, we’ve got to run the equipment and pay our people to be here and pay for the raw materials.”
Dread River’s regular products are generally 40% to 45% alcohol. Authorities urge that hand sanitizer should be at least 60% alcohol; Dread River’s is 70%.
“We would like to be able to make some money off of this at some point, but we’ll probably rely on some corporate partners to help us there and be able to continue giving it out to the community for free,” Cubelic said.