It’s an indication of just how strange times are right now that distilleries in Scotland and across the world have been rechannelling their efforts away from producing spirit and into helping keep supplies of vital hand-sanitiser flowing.
For the team at the Glasgow Distillery Company, the demand was apparent even before they had decided to start producing it.
“It was obvious there was a massive problem all over the UK with supplies of hand-sanitiser, and certainly around Glasgow and the west of Scotland,” says Liam Hughes, CEO and co-founder of the Glasgow Distillery Company. “We quickly put all the wheels in motion behind the scenes to get hold of glycerol and hydrogen peroxide, but I wasn’t prepared to press the go button until HMRC said that all distilleries could proceed to denature alcohol and the duty would be null and void. That was the final piece of the jigsaw that allowed us to start producing.”
By this time Eleanor Quigley from the distillery’s marketing team had been drafted in to manage the flow of requests coming in and to try and prioritise where the hand-sanitiser needed to go.
“We already had about 200 emails to respond to while we were still trying to source some suitable containers, but once we started to put the sanitiser into bottles we were able to get back to those organisations,” she says. “There were requests for everything from IBCs [intermediate bulk containers used to hold up to 1000 litres of alcohol] to 2.5 litre bottles, from the NHS, care homes, charities and GP surgeries through to individuals who were concerned about their parents.
“One of the shocking things for me were the emails from people who couldn’t procure hand sanitiser through normal avenues, had to go somewhere else and were being charged up to £20 for a litre. We’re giving our hand-sanitiser away free of charge to most places, but if a big care home group gets in touch and can afford to pay the cost price per litre, we’ll ask for that.
“But we’ve had ambulances come to the distillery, we’ve delivered to the Beatson [Institute for Cancer Research], and seeing the people you’re giving it to in their work situations has been very emotional – I’ve received notes from care home managers, saying that you’re genuinely saving lives here.”
Production of the hand-sanitiser quickly became a family affair, with Liam calling on his children to help out on the production line.
“We set up a separate operation in a different part of the distillery, and that’s why it’s been really helpful to use my kids to minimise any risk to other staff,” says Liam. “We started using our small bottlings line, which we hadn’t used for ages, but were having to make it up as we went along. The 2.5 litre containers for the hand-sanitiser are plastic and when they’re on the bottling line they didn’t fill because of the way it works – it sucked all the air out of them and they collapsed. So we’ve had to use one litre glass bottles and our half litre Makar gin bottles and then pour them into the 2.5 litre plastic containers.”
In terms of the ingredients of hand-sanitiser, it’s pretty straightforward. Glasgow Distillery Company has been using its grain neutral spirit (GNS) that would normally be going into its gin and vodka bottlings, and is above the 70% abv strength necessary to be antibacterial. It is ‘denatured’, meaning it is made unfit for consumption, with the addition of hydrogen peroxide and glycerol.
In the meantime, distilling operations have been able to carry on as normal, with distillery staff observing government guidelines on distancing and laying down casks that will see the light of day once the coronavirus crisis is all over.
Watch how the Glasgow Distillery Company has been producing hand-sanitiser
“Whisky as we all know is a long-term game,” says Liam. “So the whisky that we’re laying down today is not going to be available until long after coronavirus is nothing more than a horrible memory. Over the history of whisky, it’s had many dips and troughs, but if you’re in this game for the short term it’s not a game for you. As long as we can continue distilling safely to produce and lay down whisky, that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
In the meantime, Glasgow Distillery Company calculated that it’s distributed more than 5,620 litres of hand-sanitiser to between 150 and 200 organisations, with the whisky industry in general in Scotland estimated to contribute the equivalent of 50 million litres over the next eight weeks.
“That’s a hell of lot, and our part in it has been very small, but there’s only so much you can do within the capabilities you have,” says Liam. “But we stumbled into this without any real knowledge or understanding of how desperate people were out there, and if we could do more we would. We’re gratified by what the frontline care workers are doing, they are putting themselves on the line, all we’re doing is redirecting some stock, and getting something to them that is desperately in need.”
LISTEN TO LIAM AND ELEANOR TELL THE STORY IN THEIR OWN WORDS, ON THE SMWS WHISKY TALK PODCAST – CLICK ON THE IMAGE BELOW