Thursday, April 9, 2020

What Does 'Making' Mean When It Comes to Sanitizer?

Sanitizer product made at the Jim Beam Distillery in Clermont, Kentucky.
All across America, distilleries large and small are making hand sanitizer and other sanitizing products that use alcohol to kill germs. But as with the beverages these companies normally produce, 'make' doesn't necessarily mean what you think it does.

There is nothing underhanded here. What the liquor companies are doing is commendable. Most are giving away their sanitizer products to medical institutions and first responders, such as police and fire/EMS. Many are supporting the Covid-19 fight in other ways too. Brown-Forman, for example, has repurposed the kitchens of its corporate cafeteria to make meals they're donating. Most companies also are participating in efforts to assist hospitality industry workers sidelined by the pandemic.

To be effective at killing germs, sanitizer products have to be at least 60% alcohol, or what in the beverage world would be 120° proof. Some are higher. The Beam product shown above is 80%.

This means these products start with grain neutral spirit (GNS), the nearest thing you can get to 'pure' ethanol at 95% alcohol by volume (ABV). That's 190° proof. If you ever made 'jungle juice' in college, you probably started with Everclear or another equivalent 190° proof brand. That's what we're talking about here. By contrast, vodka is a neutral spirit but typically is 80° proof, which is 40% ABV. That won't kill anything except, perhaps, brain cells.

Virtually all of the big liquor companies, and many of the small ones, sell vodka, gin, blended whiskey, and other products that start with a neutral spirit base. Very few actually make, as in distill from scratch, the neutral spirit they use. They buy it in tanker quantities from companies that specialize in that, then they filter, dilute and bottle it. In addition to vodka and gin, most liqueurs have a GNS base. Your typical American blended whiskey is 80% GNS and just 20% whiskey. The big liquor companies buy and use a lot of GNS.

You might think the big guys would be more likely to make their own GNS than the small guys, but it's just the opposite. Hardly any of the big guys do. Some of the little guys do, some don't. Some who say they distill actually just redistill GNS they buy. They do this more for marketing purposes than anything else.

Even a company as big as Beam Suntory doesn't distill its own neutral spirit. It's just not practical. So when they 'make' sanitizer, they're using neutral spirit they bought from someone else. They mix in the other ingredients, which they also don't make, and bottle it. In a way, that makes what they're doing even more commendable, since all the ingredients are an out-of-pocket expense.

Why don't they make it themselves? After all, they have stills and all the other necessary equipment, such as grain mills, mash cookers and fermenters, but American whiskey stills typically produce a spirit that is no more than 80% ABV. They can be modified to produce neutral spirit, but it's not as simple as flicking a switch. Basically, you can't make neutral spirit in a whiskey still.

A few of the big distilleries have the necessary equipment to make neutral spirit from scratch. One of them is Sazerac, which has made vodka at Buffalo Trace using a repurposed light whiskey still. Light whiskey is just a point or two below neutrality, so that's an easy modification. Barton 1792 also has a light whiskey still but I don't know if they have fired it up since they stopped making light whiskey a few years back.

Sazerac won't say if they're distilling the neutral spirit they're using for sanitizer, or using neutral spirit they would normally use for their vodka, etc. It doesn't matter, but it's curious that they won't say.

Grain whiskey distilleries in Scotland and Ireland, as well as all Canadian whiskey distilleries, make a nearly-neutral spirit so they may be using house-made spirit for sanitizer, but most U.S. distilleries are not.

So who does make GNS? There is one big company that makes both GNS and whiskey. That's MGP. They make some GNS at their distillery in Indiana, where they also make whiskey. They make most of it at their facilities in Kansas. Some of the other big GNS makers are ADM (Peoria, Illinois) and GPC (Muscatine, Iowa). Most GNS is made from corn so the big GNS distilleries are where the corn is. The same companies make ethanol for fuel and other non-beverage uses. It's all the same stuff.

So why am I telling you this? Because it struck me as interesting, that's all. It's hard to know what to write about in these crazy times.


Richard Turner said...

Thanx for this interesting and enlightening post, Col. Cowdery! I guess some of us 'knew' some of this; but, having the information gathered and explained in a concise understandable way is gratifying... and entertaining, too. I wonder how many of the "small" producers actually have the capability to distill to such a high ethanol concentration....

samadamsthedog said...

I suspect that most ethanol production is petrochemical, and most of that which is not comes from large-scale fermentation of corn for use as an additive in gasoline. 95% ethanol is the same mixture no matter where you get ti from, and so there is really no reason, economic or otherwise (unless you want to boast about it on your label) to make it on a small scale locally.

Anonymous said...

thanks chuck, hope you are staying safe

billyhacker said...

One reason to make it locally is if nearby farmers are having to toss food because of supply chain issues (restaurants aren't making fries). Driving potatoes around is expensive, but if a local potato farmer is burying 500,000 lbs of potatoes, and you have the yeast for it, why not?

Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

Another reason to make it locally or nationally, large scale or small scale is because there is an enormous shortage of sanitizer now. Anyone business that has the capacity to do so, should do so, IMO.

And as billyhacker notes, it is a useful way to use available local resources locally. Our local distillery is making sanitizer and donating it to healthcare workers/first responders/etc. I hear they give a bottle of it when you purchase a bottle of booze at the distillery. Maybe I should see if they are still doing that. I'm just about out of sanitizer and there is none to be found on the shelves.

K Rogers said...

So do the hand sanitizer labels say "distilled in Indiana"?

Anonymous said...

Someone please explain to me: this fad of whiskey companies "making" sanitizer is due to an alleged shortage of regular sanitizer, typically made from isopropanol (rubbing alcohol). Now, unlike ethanol distilled from any foodstuffs like grain or fruit, requiring fermentation (time), isopropanol is typically made from petroleum products via cracking - a more direct industrial chemical process, it's a byproduct of refining (without getting into technicalities). It is both cheaper and faster to produce in bulk. Oil is CHEAP and there's a glut of it globally and locally. US refinery capacities likely dwarf all spirit still capacity in the world. WHY then is there a shortage of isopropanol? Even if they don't refine enough gasoline/fuel due to reduced driving, why aren't those huge refineries retooling to make more sanitizer? Don't explain to me, explain to yourself (but I'll be curious to see theories). P.S. I'm sure this is good for reputation for whiskey companies and I have nothing against that.