Grocery store shoppers who can’t find hand sanitizer this month have another option — Twin Valley Distillers in Rockville.
Montgomery County’s first and only distillery, which opened six years ago, normally makes rum, vodka, whisky and bourbon.
Last week, as coronavirus, or COVID-19, was spreading, owner Edgardo Zuniga realized there was a need in the community for hand sanitizer, which was disappearing from store shelves.
Most hand sanitizer companies, Zuniga said Thursday, are three months behind in supply due to the increased demand during the COVID-19 epidemic.
Hand sanitizers are typically made with a type of alcohol, such as ethanol or isopropyl. They are at least 60% alcohol by volume, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
Switching from making spirits to making hand sanitizer for Zuniga meant that he had to get the right percentage of alcohol.
“We were doing very quiet production and didn’t tell anybody. … I’ve been experimenting four days before Sunday, for 16-hour-days,” Zuniga said.
Zuniga said Twin Valley moved quickly to file paperwork with the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau to get approval to produce the hand sanitizer commercially.
On Wednesday, the bureau temporarily eased its regulations to allow more distilleries across the country to make a similar switch to hand sanitizer production.
“In a way, I was a little bit ahead of my time, trying to anticipate an issue,” Zuniga said.
Twin Valley has temporarily stopped its grain fermentation to focus on sugar fermentation, which is needed to make the high-alcohol-by-volume hand sanitizer. On Wednesday and Thursday, Zuniga said, he bought 7,500 pounds of sugar from a wholesaler.
“Doing [hand] sanitizer is keeping us busy. Some of my production guys, instead of working four hours, are working eight hours,” he said.
The distillery started selling 4-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer Tuesday afternoon for $4 each, with a limit of two per person. Zuniga said on Thursday that he expected to sell 1,500 bottles by the end of the week.
At 2 p.m. on Friday, a sign was posted in the distillery’s window saying the sanitizer was sold out and there would be more starting at 8 a.m. Monday.
Zuniga said his hand sanitizer clientele has included first responders in Montgomery County, the city of Baltimore and the city of Frederick.
“Pretty soon every town or small city in Maryland will ask all the distilleries for help,” he said.
As of Friday morning, there were 149 cases of COVID-19 in Maryland, including 51 in Montgomery County. The CDC was reporting more than 15,000 cases and 200 deaths nationally at 3:30 p.m. Friday.
As the COVID-19 outbreak has grown, distilleries across the country have switched to hand sanitizer production, said Jim Bauckman, a spokesman for the Maryland Distillers Guild, a trade association for about 30 distilleries across Maryland.
“Our distilleries are responding to what they see is a need in the community. They see that there are not enough hand sanitizers in stores. Bulk hand sanitizers throughout the country and the globe are in extremely short supply,” Bauckman said Friday.
Bauckman said the concept of concentrating alcohol during the distillation process for the purpose of making a disinfectant was a natural idea that came to distillers.
“They thought, ‘Hey, this stuff is high-test alcohol. It acts in a disinfectant manner. Let’s use it as a cleaning supply here.’… I think that was the genesis of the next step,” he said.
Some distilleries, Bauckman said, have given away their hand sanitizer instead of selling it.
Even though Zuniga is selling his hand sanitizer, he said his business is losing money overall. Switching to hand sanitizer production has meant he’s had to buy a different kind of bottling machine and label maker.
“It’s not like I just put in a bottle I got in Home Depot. I tried to make it more uniform. So we had to spend some money,” he said.
Despite the expense, Zuniga said Twin Valley will make hand sanitizer as long as there is a need for it during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As long as I can help the community, I will do it,” he said.
Dan Schere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org