Thursday, April 30, 2020

Some Disturbing News in the Rush to Produce Sanitizer Products

ERC Midwest delivering 110 gallons of Koval's hand sanitizer to Metropolitan Family Services in Chicago.
One of the upbeat, people-helping-people stories of the coronavirus crisis is the many distilleries, large and small, that have been making hand sanitizer and other sanitizing products, typically donating them to first responders and other needy groups. Koval, a Chicago craft distillery in my neighborhood, is one of them.

Koval makes whiskey but it also makes neutral spirits, i.e., vodka, so they are using their own distillate to make sanitizer. This most recent batch was distilled from 15,000 gallons of beer donated by local craft breweries such as Metropolitan and Begyle. Most craft distilleries aren't equipped to distill out at a high enough proof so they are making sanitizer from ethanol they have acquired from industrial ethanol producers. I wrote about this here a couple weeks ago.

Some problems are emerging. On April 15, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued limits on certain chemicals permitted in alcohol-based sanitizer, updating a temporary guidance it adopted last month as the health crisis deepened and more manufacturers registered to produce sanitizing products. The FDA has notified several ethanol companies that their product does not meet safety standards, forcing them to halt production and cancel supply agreements. In one case, the FDA said it found significant levels of the carcinogen acetaldehyde in ethanol supplied by a company for use in hand sanitizer.

The problem appears to be with producers who have switched from making ethanol for fuel, which is going begging, to making it for sanitizer. It may not be food grade, which is what distilleries typically buy. As FDA says in its guidance, "because of the potential for the presence of potentially harmful impurities due to the processing approach, fuel or technical grade ethanol should only be used if it meets USP or FCC grade requirements and the ethanol has been screened for any other potentially harmful impurities not specified in the USP or FCC requirements."

As the producer, it is up to you to do the due diligence. Don't trust the manufacturer's word. A midwestern craft distiller I know (not Koval) told me this:

"We get a dozen calls/emails a day from ethanol plants and dealers trying to sell us tankers at a great price. Not a single one has provided a COA (Certificate of Analysis) or SDS (Safety Data Sheet) that shows their levels of methanol and acetaldehyde are within the allowable amounts. Stop falling for it, folks. Follow the guidelines from the FDA and use beverage grade and USP-certified stuff before you hurt someone or give us all a bad name."

The American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA) and the Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS) both have great resources available on this topic, and both recommend getting independent certification before you use. If you can’t certify, don’t use.


Anonymous said...

I think that if properly encouraged, the big ethanol producers could sort out the technical issues pretty quickly, get together with companies who specialize in formulating and packaging personal care products, and the shortage of hand sanitizers would be solved quickly. The distilleries who are doing their best to fill the void are to be commended, but a national effort with the big guys (similar to what is being done in the UK) would be a much better way to tackle this problem.

Ann O. Nymous said...

After some reflection and consultation of my college Chem-E textbooks, I'm going to have to challenge your assertion that "Most craft distilleries aren't equipped to distill out at a high enough proof...". There may be intricacies of still construction that I am not familiar with, but contemplation of the ethanol/water vapor/liquid equilibrium diagram suggests that any still that can make a beverage distillate can redistill that product into neutral spirits in a second run through the still. The bottoms from the second distillation could be probably backfed into a run of the beer to recover the alcohol content therein.
It's no way to run a business, but with enough passes even a pot still will get as good of rocket fuel as a column still will.

Chuck Cowdery said...

You're not wrong, but it's not just a single redistillation. With alembics, it can take ten passes to achieve neutrality. With a hybrid or whiskey column it may take fewer but, as you said, it's not practical. But yes, in a pinch, anyone with a still should be able to produce a neutral spirit if he/she tries hard enough.

Anonymous said...

And I have yet to see an explanation as to why there might not be enough isopropanol from the oil refineries, which likely dwarf the global drinking spirit distilleries like Antares dwarfs our Sun. Why not a shortage of soap, which is more effective at cleaning hands than sanitizer, which is only appropriate when washing hands is not possible?