With the coronavirus outbreak forcing public places to close, last call may have come for bars across the city where people gathered for a shot of whiskey or a vodka martini. But the crisis is spurring local distilleries into action.

Nick Spink has been working around the clock to fill the need for sanitizer ever since the novel coronavirus outbreak started in the United States and shortages became widespread.

As the owner of Artisan Distillery, 315 Eighth St., Spink has joined other San Antonio distilleries in putting their standard recipes for whiskey, vodka, and gin, on the back burner to produce as much sanitizer as possible while also making enough spirits for curbside pickup.

It’s not the first time the whiskey industry has been called into service. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the federal government assumed control of distillery operations to make a number of products, including antifreeze and munitions, to support the war effort.

For the battle against COVID-19, on March 18, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau simply loosened the laws in order to shore up the nation’s inventory of sanitizer during what local and state governments have deemed a public health emergency.

“I started out with four 55-gallon barrels and I’ve already sold out,” said Spink, who produces about 2,000 barrels of vodka and whiskey a year. “By this Friday, I’ll have a minimum of six 55-gallon barrels.”

Corn is the main ingredient in Nick Spink’s sanitizer. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

It was an easy switch, he said, given vodka is distilled at 95 percent alcohol, and he’s producing sanitizer near that level. “To kill germs and to kill a majority of viruses, it has to be a minimum of 60 percent,” Spink said. “That’s why I do 80 percent, so it kills almost everything.”

Spink is taking orders, selling the sanitizer at cost – $10 for a 750-milliliter bottle, about on par with the cost of Purell – and making it available for curbside pickup along with his distilled spirits products.

But as craft distillers jump into the hand sanitizer manufacturing business, sourcing the ingredients and containers is getting harder.

The sanitizer he and others are producing often is not like the gels and foams containing moisturizing aloe vera and glycerin that many consumers are used to. Those products, too, are scarce within the supply chains, he said.

That means the sanitizer he makes is more like rubbing alcohol in its consistency.

Ranger Creek Brewing & Distilling also began producing sanitizer last week. Co-owner Dennis Rylander said the longtime distiller is making several hundred gallons at a time, giving away bottles of it to individuals and bulk orders to nursing homes and doctors’ offices.

A sign indicates that Ranger Creek Brewing & Distilling is out of sanitizer on Tuesday. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“It just felt like a natural way to give back,” he said. “Everybody’s struggling now, including us. When we started getting requests from folks around the community, it felt like the right thing to do. We’re trying to give it to the people that need it the most.”

The vodka and whiskey maker Rebecca Creek Distillery has shifted its operations to make sanitizer, which it is donating it to first responders and health care workers, according to a Facebook post by founder Steve Ison.

The sanitizer that local spirits distillers are producing is made according to the World Health Organization guidelines for an 80 percent alcohol solution, Rylander said.

A local supplier of packaging and medical supplies, Essential Med Tools, provided the initial supply of plastic spray bottles Ranger Creek is using as containers, but Rylander is working to find another source to keep up the supply.

“We’re still finding some here and there, but it’s starting to become more difficult,” he said.

Making sanitizer isn’t something Ranger Creek has ever done before, and though it’s still making and selling beer and whiskey for takeout, the distiller’s entire business model has changed.

Ranger Creek Brewing & Distilling fills small bottles with sanitizer to hand out to those in need. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“We’ve been busy making beer and whiskey as part of our day job for the last 10 years we’ve had this business,” he said. “It’s just a weird time so you’ve got to find weird solutions.”

Distillers nationwide are also chasing after ethanol to make the sanitizer, said Trey Azar, founder of Azar Family Brands which makes Seersucker Gin and Cinco Vodka.

Before the crisis, he said, “As a distiller, I didn’t know anything about hand sanitizer and what the processes are. They are very different. It’s a different kind of base alcohol you use.”

The alcohol used for hand sanitizer is isopropyl alcohol which is unlike the cleaner, consumable ethyl alcohol Azar’s distillers use to produce gin and vodka, and there’s a shortage of isopropyl alcohol in the market, he said.

“Basically, you’ve got distillers across the country, and people who haven’t even been in the distilling business, that are all chasing ethanol supplies,” Azar said. “They’ve been seized up so it’s made for a very crazy environment because everybody’s scrambling to get their hands on ethanol right now.”

Azar said the company will start making sanitizer now that it has completed stocking the estimated 60 to 90 days’ worth of gin and vodka inventory to meet needs. The company’s Seersucker tasting room near China Grove is temporarily closed, and products are available for sale online.

“It’s hard to determine what the market needs are right now because we lost 50 percent of our business in restaurants, bars, and hotels, but retail is up significantly,” Azar said.

Brewers (from left) Tony Ferguson and Zach Wolfe fill small bottles with hand sanitizer created at Ranger Creek Brewing & Distilling. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

When they start producing sanitizer, the company will provide it in bulk quantities to major distributors, he said.

Maverick Whiskey also began making sanitizer about two weeks ago, donating it to the City and others. But Maverick has also faced supply shortages and long hours at the distillery.

At the start of the coronavirus outbreak, the makers of Tito’s Vodka, owned by Bert Beveridge, who grew up in San Antonio, were warning people not to use the product as hand sanitizer. Tito’s, they said, is only 40 percent alcohol, which does not meet the Centers for Disease Control recommendations.

Two weeks later, the Austin-based Tito’s was making hand sanitizer and giving it away.

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.