The process by which distilleries convert from making liquor to making alcoholic hand sanitizer

There has been a lot of news lately about distilleries/breweries switching from their usual beer/liquor to making alcoholic hand sanitizer instead. Do they just simply go about making their usual beverage products, but then use some technique to extract the alcohol, and then discard the unused (now non-alcoholic) beer and wine?

Do they perhaps prolong some part of the process so as to let the fermentation create much more alcohol than usual?

That “technique to extract alcohol” is called distilling. And they were already doing that. The difference now is that they don’t do any of the aging in oak barrels or whatnot afterwards.

First they are distilleries, they don’t make beer or wine but spirits. From what I understand of the process they make it very high proof then dilute it with water to the proof they sell it at. Making 180 proof or higher should be easy.

However I got some distillery made hand sanitizer and it states isopropyl alcohol 75%, so i have no idea how they make that type, or how to convert back to ethanol with proper sanitization once they resume operations. My guess is it’s mostly if not all ethanol but that wouldn’t fly legally so easy. Also note this was not a release to the public but a favor to our fire department.

Distilling pretty much is a “technique to extract the alcohol”. You boil the mash, which has a low alcohol content, in a still. Since alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, the alcohol boils off first, and then the alcohol vapor condenses in the copper tubing and gets collected. As I understand it, many spirits actually have water added back to them to get the desired proof. Straight moonshine right out of the still can have a pretty high alcohol content as I understand it.

My WAG is that they may have to distill it more than once. Lots of alcohol (rum, brandy, etc.) is 80 proof, which is 40 percent. They need a higher percentage, from what I’ve read.

Interesting. So spirits is largely just alcohol + water?

Also, wonder why they can’t just extract ethanol and bottle it up as sanitizer, unless ethanol doesn’t kill germs like isopropryl.

I’m not aware of any distilleries producing isopropyl alcohol. Maybe there are some, but the ones I’ve read about are following their standard ethanol distillation process. You can’t make isopropyl alcohol from ethanol. Production of isopropyl alcohol is a completely different process.

The reason they can’t just bottle it and sell it isn’t because of its germ killing abilities (it kills germs fine); it’s because the FDA is worried about kids drinking it. Distilleries would need to add a denaturant to it, and that would ruin their production lines for consumable liquor. Here’s an article that explains more.

Distillation efficiency is dependent on the still type, but in most cases the spirits are coming off the still much higher than 40%, so yes, they are all diluted to bring it down to the standard 40%.

There are several types of distilleries. Generally, they break down by the type of fermentable they are going to use (grain-based vs sugar-based) and then what they want to turn the booze into with “brown” spirits using similar distillation techniques and the gin and vodka being different a special. There is some overlap there where a lot of rum is made through a still very close to vodka but its close enough for this discussion.

For hand sanitizer the FDA and TTB have allowed distilleries to make hand sanitizer from three recipes (80% ethanol, 75% isopropyl alcohol, and 60% isopropyl). The isopropyl is sourced from industrial sources and not made at the distillery. For most distilleries they can’t make the ethanol pure enough either (USP standards) so the FDA has granted a short-term waver that allows for not USP quality ethanol to be used so long as the ethanol percentage in the final hand sanitizer is 80%. What this generally means is that whiskey (or rum, or other) can be blended with neutral spirit to create a 170-proof blend.

The FDA granting that waver opened up a lot of supply but we are still very constrained on neutral spirit supply and on its own most whiskey/rum/tequila type stills are only capable of a maximum 150 proof. Also, a lot of people (including me) are trying to unlock the fuel ethanol supply for hand sanitizer use since many AFPs (alcohol fuel plants) are being shut in due to the very low rack price. The benzene content of fuel ethanol is too high in most cases and even 3/4 of the neutral samples I’m seeing right now are too high in the acetaldehyde content.

This was kind of a rambling post but I’m happy to answer as much as I can. I’m hip deep in hand sanitizer production right now.

Ethanol is a large part of the blend and what you get in the bottle at home has a ton of water added to bring it down to 40% (most of the time R/O). There is a bunch of other stuff in there too unless you are drinking really good vodka.

The WHO ethanol recipe isn’t as effective as the 75% IPA recipe and while the WHO recommends both as a pre surgical scrub if there are no other options only the 75% IPA has been tested to achieve surgical cleanliness (once, it failed the second test, 80% ethanol failed both times).

What about really cheap vodka? Asking for a friend.

Benzene can be a byproduct of shitty fermentations. Its also very easy to leave methanol and acetone in to help boost your apparent ethanol content.


Check out the Dogfish Head video embedded here:

FYI, Dogfish Head is a really famous craft beer brewer in Delaware (?). Pretty cool article and really cool video. They converted their gin hard alcohol line, bottle in growlers and donating all profits while keeping all their employees (including shuttered restaurants and hotel folks) working. Cool shit. Makes you proud to be an American!

As an aside, Oredigger77, what was your company making before you started on hand sanitizer?

Sheesh, this is like Prohibition when the booze companies converted to soft drinks and related products.

There are probably sharpies selling kits so you can manufacture bathtub hand sanitizer.

But practically no vodka producers are doing their own original distillation. The cheap ones start with neutral grain spirits, dilute it with water, and run it through a cheap charcoal filter.

This is opposed to expensive vodka, in which they start with neutral grain spirits, dilute it with water, and run it through two charcoal filters, with maybe a redistillation for show.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a distillery any more. My company does business planning, design and build, custom equipment, and operations training for breweries, wineries and distilleries.

That is just not true at all. Lots of distilleries make their own vodka from scratch. Of course, they aren’t nearly the business success of the ones using GNS base because there is no way to make it as clean and as cheaply as the giant plants do. I generally advise my clients not to make their own vodka unless they have a bunch of money or want to specialize in vodka. Before the craziness I was building a regional sized vodka facility and we were looking at a million in equipment to make decent vodka as a relatively small scale. The guy at your corner distillery with a hybrid still probably isn’t making vodka even if he’s doing it in house because those stills just can’t get the purity required even by lax US standards.

They had some small local booze companies switch, this is what one of them had to say:
“Ian MacNeil, the owner of Glass Distillery, uses distilling byproducts for his mix.”

"When you distill alcohol, the first part of the distillation removes parts of the alcohol we don’t want to drink, things like methanol and acetone,” explained MacNeil.

"Make no mistake, you cannot drink this, but it sure works great for cleaning your hands,” said MacNeil.

Yep. I think they are using the heads and tails of the distillation for the sanitizer (they are typically a waste product).

I have no doubt some are but they really shouldn’t be. Methanol, acetone, various aldehydes and the other components of the tails aren’t covered by any WHO formula. To put it simply there is no verification that those sanitizers work. Yes, it a normal byproduct and I typically recommend to my distillers that they use their heads for cleaning their distillery but there is a reason that the FDA, WHO and CDC aren’t recommending we use nail polish remover for hand sanitizer.

Tails on the other hand are mostly long chain alcohols and water, rarely is their ABV above 30% and they have no place in hand sanitizer that is trying to be at least 60% or to meet WHO and FDA guidelines of 80%.