Sebago Lake Distillery founder Dan Davis, right, and Baxter Brewing sales manager Rob Hackett transfer kegs of beer into a still Monday at Sebago Lake Distillery in Gardiner. The 600 gallons of brew should make about 90 gallons of hand sanitizer, Davis said. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

With demand for Maine distilled spirits evaporating with the closure of bars and restaurants across the state, distillers are finding a new outlet for their efforts: hand sanitizer.

The transition from distilling alcohol for consumption to alcohol for cleaning to fight coronavirus has been creative and fast, if not always smooth. And given that hand sanitizer is regulated like an over-the-counter drug by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the speed of the transition has been miraculous.

As the rate of infection of the highly contagious virus has risen across Maine, hospitals and healthcare facilities and organizations whose workers continue to serve the public have been looking for new sources of high-grade sanitizer as the regular sources of supply have faltered under the extreme demand for cleaning products.

“You help out where you can, to the extent you can,” Ned Wight said. Wight owns New England Distilling and is a member of the Maine Distillers Guild.

While distillers estimate the demand for their spirits has dropped by 60% since bars and restaurants across the state have closed by order of Gov. Janet Mills to slow the spread of the virus that causes the respiratory disease COVID-19, they’re still able to put their stills to work to make a product that’s in demand.

That help has been made easier as federal regulatory agencies have found ways to allow distillers to change gears and apply their knowledge to making a new product.

Master distiller Dan Davis peeks through a view port Tuesday to check the level of beer inside the still at Sebago Lake Distillery in Gardiner. They were distilling beer donated from Baxter Brewing into alcohol that will be used to make hand sanitizer. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

“We’re all in a familiar space,” Wight said.

Distillers know how to make and handle spirits for their own uses, but now they are having to follow the very specific guidelines set out by the FDA, he said, and follow the World Health Organization’s requirements for hand sanitizer.

“No one’s trying to stop us,” said Dan Davis, distiller at Sebago Lake Distillery in Gardiner. “They’re trying to put in temporary releases from guidelines and rules and all that stuff.”

That’s a shift from the normal order of regulatory things; alcohol production is a highly regulated industry that carries with it a requirement for a lot of paperwork.

Some distilleries have been able to mix high-proof alcohol with hydrogen peroxide and glycerine to produce their own hand sanitizer, while others are working to produce a high proof alcohol to be mixed by others.

 

Chris Fales talks to customers lined up to get bottles of hand sanitizer March 28 at Sebago Lake Distillery in Gardiner. The distillery had 50 glass 50-milliliter glass bottles with pump sprayers on top of hand sanitizer it had made with byproduct from its rum making business. Master distiller Dan Davis said that they were asking for a $2 donation that would be used to purchase more bottles. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

Split Rock Distilling in Newcastle falls in that first category. Co-owners Topher Mallory and Matt Page had started fielding requests from local service providers, like the postal workers and construction companies, in addition to healthcare providers in Lincoln County.

After figuring out whether they could make it to the standard issued by the World Health Organization, they made a test batch in-house at the end of March, bottled it as Royal Rose Syrups, a second business on the site of their distillery, and offered it for sale, selling out in a day.

“The response was beyond anything we initially could have imagined,” Page said, as he was taking a short break from ferrying pre-paid orders out to the driveway for safe pickup by customers.

Split Rock is able to produce alcohol of a high enough proof for hand sanitizer and blend it on site.

Other distillers don’t have the same capacity.

Wight said an initiative is now underway with the University of Maine to be able to make hospital-grade hand sanitizer, and distillers across the state are participating as they are able.

At the end of March, at the Doom Forest Distillery in Pittston, Lynn Chadwick was tinkering with her own still to see if she could increase the proof or alcohol content in the spirits she’s producing.

Even if she couldn’t, she said she had been able to order 190-proof alcohol from one of her suppliers to contribute to the cause.

Last week, Davis took delivery of 1,200 gallons of beer from Baxter Brewing. Because his still can’t produce the target 190-proof spirit, he was planning a stripping run.

“Multiple distilleries are working together because a lot of us can do these stripping runs, and were you take 600 gallons of beer essentially and reduce it down to 100 gallons of a higher alcohol content,” Davis said.

Sebago Lake Distillery founder Dan Davis transfers kegs of Baxter Brewing beer into a still Monday at Sebago Lake Distillery in Gardiner. The 600 gallons of donated beer should make about 90 gallons of hand sanitizer. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

The distillers are using beer because the usual source of high proof alcohol is not available. Normally corn distilleries in the Midwest can deliver high proof alcohol, Davis said, but now everything they produce is sold instantly and is hard for others to get.

He planned to send the product of his work to a Portland distiller who is able to bring up the alcohol content to the level required for hand sanitizer. That product is expected to be taken to the University of Maine for mixing and bottling at the Product Development Center.

A number of hospitals have said they have enough hand sanitizer.

Alcohol distilled from beer flows out the still and into a metal barrel Tuesday at Sebago Lake Distillery in Gardiner. The company, that in more normal times makes rum, was distilling beer donated from Baxter Brewing into alcohol that will be used to make hand sanitizer. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

Joy McKenna, director of Marketing and Communications for MaineGeneral Health Care, said MaineGeneral has enough for now.

“We are worried about the surge and our needs at that time,” McKenna said, noting the hospital has a compounding pharmacy that has agreed to make it if it’s needed.

Becky Schnur, director of communications for the Maine Hospital Association, said hospitals have been reaching out to the association more about personal protective equipment than hand sanitizer, which Mills’ emergency order allow hospital compounding pharmacies, like the one at MaineGeneral, to make.

Individual hospitals, like Northern Maine Medical Center in Fort Kent, has a limited supply and is working with a local brewer to supplement its stock, she said via email.

In some cases, the production of hand sanitizer is one piece of the economy that’s still creating a demand for locally sourced ingredients.

“At the root of this, there’s organic New England grain, and what we’re selling today is in some way supporting local agriculture,” Mallory said. “Grain is in high demand, but we’ll probably use sugar and grain and other inputs eventually here. But right now, what we’re selling is out of New England’s fields and was destined for our spirits.”

 

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