With hand sanitizer selling for $100 a bottle in some places last week, Seattle distiller Ian MacNeil got angry. Then he got busy. Hell, MacNeil thought, I can make the stuff cheaper. So he proceeded to mix up a version of hand sanitizer using the alcohol he had intended for his line of vodka.

The owner of Glass Distillery is offering a pocket-sized bottle of hand cleaner for free to anyone who wants to pick one up at his tasting room in Sodo. If you need a family-sized bottle, he sells it for 39 cents an ounce (instead of the secondary market rate of $12 an ounce), he said.

MacNeil expected a trickle of visitors. He got a stampede.

The Seattle Police Department bought 5 gallons of his sanitizer. Safeway wanted to buy in bulk for its cashiers and clerks. First responders called as well. Which ones? It might be quicker for MacNeil to say who didn’t contact him. 

And that’s how MacNeil, like dozens of other distillers around the Seattle area, found himself suddenly suiting up as another player in the nation’s battle to quell the coronavirus crisis. 

In a scene that hearkens to the old “I Want You” posters of Uncle Sam demanding people enlist to fight tyranny, federal and local agencies are asking makers of whiskey and vodka to shift gears and use their stills and bottling facilities to make hand sanitizer in the name of public service.

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The shortage is so dire that the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau last Wednesday cleared all legal hurdles to allow distilleries to produce hand sanitizers “during this emergency,” waiving permits and fees as long as their products follow the formula approved by the World Health Organization.

About 30 distilleries in Washington state have answered that call. Some are ceasing booze production and pivoting to disinfectants. Other mom-and-pop distillers are banding together to buy sanitizer ingredients in bulk to keep costs down. Their goal is to make liters and gallons of it for hospitals, social-service agencies and anyone on the front lines fighting the coronavirus pandemic. Many distilleries have set the price at cost — $10 for a liter, or $30 per gallon, said Washington Distillers Guild President Mhairi Voelsgen.

“This is not a money-maker for the distilleries in the state. But it is the right thing to do,” said Voelsgen.

Voelsgen said many Seattle-area distilleries are coordinating with the Washington State Military Department’s Emergency Management Division to identify health agencies in most urgent need, or what the government calls “Tier One.”

Officials at the Emergency Management Division could not be reached for comment, but according to Washington State Department of Health guidelines, those designated as “Tier One” priority are “long-term care facilities with confirmed COVID-19 cases, hospitals with the greatest number of confirmed cases,” along with health care workers who work directly with coronavirus patients.

Across the region, the hand sanitizer shortage has gotten so bad that health care providers are reportedly resorting to buying on the secondary market, where prices have been jacked up to 10 times. The scarcity began after the nation’s first death from COVID-19 was reported in Kirkland on Feb. 29. People started panic-shopping, hoarding toilet paper and other supplies. Online, prices for many goods skyrocketed, especially for hand sanitizer. As of Friday, the Washington state attorney general’s office had received 170 coronavirus-related price-gouging complaints.

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Last week, after the Gig Harbor-based Heritage Distilling Co. started selling hand sanitizers online, its website crashed. “Every hour we have to refresh it. We put more hand sanitizers on the web and literally it will sell out in 12 minutes,” said Heritage CEO Justin Stiefel. “We have a waiting list generated now.”

Heritage Distilling has shut down production of its signature Brown Sugar Bourbon to make sanitizers around the clock at its plants in Gig Harbor and Eugene, Oregon, officials said. The company will produce at least 50,000 gallons a week, packaging them in their whiskey and gin bottles until the nation’s plastic-container shortage is replenished.

The distillery will sell sanitizers to “hospitals, first responders and front-line workers” for $7.50 for a 750-ml bottle. The public can buy it at $15 each, with a two-bottle limit per person.

On Monday, one of the largest distilleries in the Pacific Northwest, Woodinville Whiskey Co., stopped its rye and bourbon production to focus on churning up to 150 gallons of sanitizer a day to donate to hospitals, nursing homes and “high-risk individuals.”

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In Bothell, Wildwood Spirits Co. is giving away hundreds of bottles to King County Metro and the Seattle Police Department.

BroVo Spirits in Woodinville and Temple Distilling in Lynnwood are now frantically cranking out 1,000 gallons using ethyl alcohol that was squirreled away for their gins.

To make government-approved sanitizer, distillers mix ethyl alcohol with glycerol, hydrogen peroxide and filtered water. The product must contain at least 60% alcohol to ward off germs, according to federal guidelines.

Most mom-and-pop distilleries buy ethyl alcohol wholesale because it’s more cost effective than distilling it out of their modest stills.

One of the few exceptions is Bainbridge Organic Distillers, which is distilling 26 tons of corn donated by the Williams Hudson Bay Farm in Walla Walla. At a time of year when distiller Keith Barnes would normally be making his award-winning wheat whiskey, he’s mashing, fermenting and distilling grains into ethyl alcohol to make 80% alcohol sanitizers. He has ramped up production to seven days a week on the island.

During the crisis, plastic bottles have become so scarce that Glass Distillery owner MacNeil asked customers to bring their own containers. Patrons lined up with mason jars and jugs. A couple of others resorted to an empty shampoo container and a 16-ounce Sprite bottle.

Whatever. If it doesn’t leak, we’ll fill it, staffers said.

MacNeil’s quixotic quest is to flood the region with so much cheap hand sanitizer that hoarders won’t have a market to hawk their overpriced lotions. He’s appalled someone tried to sell a 2-liter bottle for $150 online. “I’m not opposed to people charging a lot of money for a luxury item. This is not a luxury item,” he said. “It is a necessary part of our health regimen now.”

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When Lynn Beck, chief development officer at Seattle’s Plymouth Housing, said “sanitizers were hard to find” for her case workers and the homeless clients, Glass Distillery responded by donating 2 gallons to the nonprofit — every week.

To make 375 gallons of sanitizer weekly, MacNeil keeps his small column still churning six days a week. Last Saturday, his distillery was already humming at 7 a.m. as volunteers turned a lab table into a makeshift bottling assembly line.

They funneled sanitizer into 2-ounce bottles, screwed the atomizer caps on and then slapped three tiny federal-mandated warning labels on each one. It takes 32 seconds to assemble one pocket-sized bottle. The tedious task looks more fitting for someone with the finger dexterity of a watchmaker. By 11 a.m., the volunteers were already on their second pot of coffee as they rushed to fill 1,900 bottles, all to give away.

While his wife, Laura, and friends were bottling, MacNeil dumped 125 gallons of alcohol into his copper kettle to boil and waited as the vapors moved through the columns. What usually would be vodka dripping off his still is instead mixed in 55-gallon drums with other federally approved chemicals to make the disinfectant.

Meanwhile outside, a bearded man stood patiently by the front door with an empty milk jug in hand.

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