Strange days indeed. The pubs are shut, we can’t enjoy a dram with our friends, and every whisky festival for the foreseeable future is off the cards. We all have our bit to do, like stopping in and reducing the size of our collections, but rumour has it that some distilleries are stepping in to help out in a way that has never been heard of before …
Whisky always has been the water of life - that's where the name comes from, after all, ‘uisce beacha’ in Gaelic, uisce - ‘water’, ‘beacha’ - life, (later anglicised and shortened to whisky). Arnaldus de Villa Nova is the physician/alchemist accredited with the first use of alcohol as antiseptic in 12th century France, and legend has it that the secret of distillation came from the continent to Ireland with returning monks, first used as medicine to cure colds, winter chills, muscle pain, whathaveyou, or so they maintained at the time. As Woody, tour guide at Royal Oak distillery in Ireland, said, “Whiskey was first used to cure headaches and stomach aches, but since then has caused it’s fair share of headaches and stomach aches …”
Whisky won’t exactly cure a world-wide pandemic, but it might help. Recently, a few distilleries have been adapting production of the water of life to combat this modern-day, global crisis that is affecting us all. From the very start we have been told to wash our hands, and since then hand sanitiser has been in short supply. Whisky distillers, who know a thing or two about producing high-strength alcohol, are stepping offering help. But hand sanitiser made from whisky? - Will it work? - Will it smell of whisky? I contacted a few people in the business to find out.
The initial process of making disinfectant is remarkably similar to making whisky. Take a mash of grain, ferment, distil to a high alcohol percentage (90% should do), mix it with glycerol and hydrogen peroxide and - hey presto - germ-free mits that might just smell like you’ve been to the drinks cabinet and back, but will definitely help to keep you safe from COVID-19.
David Stapleton of Connacht Distillery in Ireland was in the USA when his intended trip to Washington DC for the St Patrick’s Day celebrations in mid-March. He told me: “Returning home, and witnessing constant announcements on school closures, event cancellations, hospitality closures, restrictions on gatherings, social distancing, only elevated both concern and anxiety. Hand sanitisers became a necessity rather than a luxury item, supplies of which unfortunately could just not be found, and stories emerged of first responders, critical service providers, food stores and many other charity, community and business organisations not having access to supplies.”
Being a producer of one of the main ingredients, the team at Connacht set about creating sanitiser in line with the prescribed formulation set out by the WHO hand rub formulation, getting it approved by the Irish authorities, and by the end of March production commenced. David went on to say: “We have started to distribute our hand sanitiser to first responders, charities, community care projects, essential business, local government, the town of Ballina and its adjacent rural areas. I don’t know how long this pandemic is going to last, but we will continue to produce hand sanitiser as quickly as possible and hopefully, until this crisis is over.”
John Teeling’s Great Northern Distillery in Dundalk, Ireland, has also adapted production to help during the crisis.
“Some weeks ago," he said, "GND began to receive frantic enquiries for sanitiser. There was literally none to be got. A decision was made to divert up to 80,000 LPA of grain spirit a week to sanitiser and we also set up, in 5 days, a bottling line. We rationed sales to customers supplying hospitals, care homes, etc. We obtained a supply of 250ml, 500ml bottles and 5 litre plastic containers which we fill and distribute locally in Dundalk and County Louth. Locally the product was supplied free of charge, while to commercial customers we supply at cost.”
Clonakilty Distillery in Co. Cork is doing its bit to help the local community and safeguard jobs. Head distiller Paul Corbett said: “We had been talking about the shortage of hand sanitisers in shops for a while, but it only occurred to us to start making it when it was apparent how serious this pandemic really was. It really motivated us as a team, the idea that we could do something to help. It wasn't easy, there was a lot of red tape to get through and while we had plenty of alcohol, the other ingredients were in short supply. The ingredients are blended on the same scales, in a 1,000 litre tank just like if I was doing a small blend e.g. our beer cask finishes. Then the bottling processes is the same, measuring, filling, capping, labelling, boxing. We sell it directly to shops and retailers.”
In Scotland, William Grant & Sons, a family-owned, independent whisky company with household name distilleries in their stable like Glenfiddich and Balvenie, have agreed to supply 5 million litres of ethanol for hand sanitiser production, also in a non-profit making gesture to help keep us safe from the virus. The production is concentrated at their huge plant in Ayrshire, Girvan Distillery, the largest in Scotland, and in Ireland at their new, state-of-the-art distillery in Tullamore, Co. Offaly. Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme, Stuart Watts, Distilleries Strategic Development Director, commented: “It’s been a significant change for our teams operating globally. They have had to adapt quickly to ensure we can respond rapidly. It’s not only been our production teams, but also the financials, supply chain coordination, logistics and so on.”
All good news, but does this hand sanitiser stuff smell of whisky …? No, I’m told it doesn’t - You’d have to mature it in a wooden cask for a few years for that and, well, we don’t want to go down that road, do we? (Whatever certain US politicians might suggest... don't drink, don't inject!)
But hats off to the British and Irish distillers, let’s spare a thought for them when we are standing on our doorsteps clapping the essential services. I think the last word can go to John Teeling, whisky businessman extraordinaire, who commented: “The decision to divert to sanitisers was easy. Business is a social obligation. It is a social obligation to help.”