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Maine Distillers, Brewers Team Up With University System To Produce Much-Needed Hand Sanitizer

Patty Wight
Maine Public
New England Distilling in Portland is among the partners making hand sanitizer, repurposing stills it normally uses to make liquor.

Germ-killing hand sanitizer is in short supply these days, especially in hospitals, where doctors and nurses on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic need it to protect themselves and their patients from the coronavirus.

As it turns out it, it can be produced pretty easily — so easily that craft distillers and brewers who would normally be making whiskey and beer appear to have found a way to repurpose their industry, with help from the University of Maine and other partners.

They’re not turning lemons into lemonade, exactly, but it’s the same idea. At a time when sales have come to a screeching halt, craft distillers and brewers have discovered that, together, they have something valuable to share.

“Ethanol — high-proof alcohol,” says Ned Wight, a partner at New England Distilling in Portland, which typically produces whiskey, gin and rum.

Credit Patty Wight / Maine Public
Maine Public
New England Distilling co-owners and distillers Tim Fisher (left) and Ned Wight collect alcohol from their first run to be used as hand sanitizer.

At the end of the day, Wight’s products are typically served in a glass tumbler. But what he and other distillers are working on these days isn’t served on the rocks.

Ethanol, at more than 94.9 percent alcohol, is one of two formulations approved by the Food and Drug Administration for hand sanitizer, along with several other ingredients. To make the high-test ethanol, distillers need beer — and lots of it.

“Right now, we are distilling Allagash White beer. We’re separating the ethanol from everything else that makes the beer beer,” Wight says. “It’s the first stage in taking it up to high enough proof to make hand sanitizer with.”

Nearly 20 distilleries and breweries are involved in the effort. Sean Sullivan of the Maine Brewers’ Guild says when he sent out an email last week asking brewers not to dump any beer, so that it could be used to make sanitizer for health care workers, he was overwhelmed with responses from those who wanted to help out.

Some brewers said they would brew special batches, but others already had a good amount on hand.

“Because St. Patrick’s Day was effectively canceled around the state, a lot of our brewers have a lot of supply of beer right now that they’re able to donate,” Sullivan says. “At this point, we think have enough of a supply, but I think as we know, the demand for hand sanitizer is likely to increase.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, health care providers may need to clean or wash their hands as many as 100 times in a 12-hour shift as the number of patients requiring hospitalization for COVID-19 ramps up, and alcohol-based sanitizers are the preferred way to do it in a hospital setting because they kill germs and are more efficient than soap and water. Hospitals and health care facilities are running low — enter the University of Maine’s chemical and biomedical engineering department, where glycerol, hydrogen peroxide and distilled water are added to the distilleries’ ethanol.

Credit Patty Wight / Maine Public
Maine Public
The first run of alcohol that will be used for sanitizer is collected in buckets at New England Distilling in Portland.

“Right now we’ve been able to produce a pilot batch that we’ve distributed to Central Maine Medical Center,” says Dan Demeritt, a spokesperson for the UMaine System.

Demeritt says a second pilot batch has also gone to Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center.

“And the university is now working with federal regulators, state agencies and public health partners to come up with a plan where we can scale up production in partnership with private sector distilleries to meet a bigger need in Maine,” he says.

A week or two ago, Wight says he knew very little about hand sanitizers. Now, he and others in his industry are working to retool their operations for production of something that has become essential on the front lines of the pandemic.

“It’s really a way that Maine is coming together to defeat something and take something on that’s scary to a lot of people but, together, we’re going to get through it,” says Mike Arsnow, an administrative fellow with MaineHealth, the health care network that includes Maine Medical Center.

In a written statement, a spokesperson for Central Maine Healthcare praised what she called Yankee ingenuity.

“Whether its plowing out your driveway or making 300 gallons of hand sanitizer — Mainers take care of each other,” Kate Carlisle wrote. “This … required a little extra creativity. But it’s helping us take care of our community, and we’re deeply thankful.”

Editor’s note: For disclosure, Ned Wight is the husband of Maine Public reporter Patty Wight.

Correction: Ethanol is at least 94.9% alcohol, not 94.9 proof.