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Strathcona Spirits and the Hand Sanitizer Distillery Movement

At this point, most of us out there have heard that distilleries are making hand sanitizer to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. CNN did a story in mid-March about boutique distilleries in the USA leading the movement—now, even Anheuser Busch has started producing the stuff.

The distillery hand sanitizer story is one of those good news stories that capture's our imaginations. It conjures up pictures of quirky artisans turned pseudo-scientists, crafting virus-fighting concoctions in their handmade stills. In this case, our imaginations couldn't be closer to the truth.

I had the pleasure of sitting down—at a more-than-healthy distance—with Adam Smith from Strathcona Spirits to talk about his experience running a distillery and making hand sanitizer during the COVID-19 crisis. The distillery has been one of our favourites since it opened just across the street from our own office on the blossoming 81st Street in Edmonton.

We talked a lot about the crazy state of the world and their sanitizer adventures. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

When did you hear about distilleries making hand sanitizer?

The last few weeks are a blur, but I think we first heard about it just a few weeks ago (in early March). We got wind of distilleries in the States starting to make hand sanitizers to distribute to their communities, and we thought "what a great public service". We're such a small distillery (the very smallest, in fact) that we thought it wasn't practical for our operation, but then we kept seeing that the shelves [in grocery stores and drug stores] were completely bare.

Scona Community Sani (@strathconaspirits)

How did the first batch of Scona Community Sani happen?

There was so much need for hand sanitizer that we decided to make one batch and donate the whole thing to needy organizations. It took some work and research, but the feds have eased up regulations as a COVID-19 response mechanism.

It's a great product to make for a distillery because we can use a lot of the by-product from the distilling process. Much of the alcohol isn't something you'd put in a drink, but it's perfect for sanitizer.

We were able to use things we had on hand including packaging and then designed labels in-house and donated the whole lot to different organizations including the Mustard Seed, Indigenous groups, arts organizations, and some restaurants in our neighbourhood. We loved the old school community response vibe—it reminded us of something like the community kitchens you see in developing nations.

What's in the secret recipe?

We decided to start with the WHO specification, which is 60-80%. We landed on a 75% alcohol solution mixed with glycerine and hydrogen peroxide. Staying true to ourselves, we then added some tongue-in-cheek botanicals like Chinese Mountain Berry and some other botanicals—they smell great in something like this and Mountain Berry is a longstanding cure-all.

...we can make the stuff. We can do it, so we will do it.

Adam Smith

What was the response like for the first batch?

The response to the first batch of hand sanitizer was absolutely epic. All of it disappeared within the first couple of days—it was just the logistics of delivering it in a responsible way that kept it from going faster.

At first, we thought we'd just do the one batch, but the demand didn't stop.

What made you keep producing after that first run?

After the reception of the first batch, we felt like it was our duty to keep doing it. People are in dire need of hand sanitizer and we can make the stuff. We can do it, so we will do it. The whole experience has been humbling because we're seeing these large institutions looking for help from such a small distillery. Before this, we knew we were niche, but we didn't realize how niche.

We're producing more, but it's been a challenge to get packaging and glycerine because the whole supply chain is really slow right now.

A peek inside Strathcona Spirits Distillery

What about the distillery, what's next?

We have our absinth coming out right away—we're excited about that. We visited the absinth trail in Switzerland and France recently and are applying what we learned there. We'll be using Alberta Wormwood grown on our farm just Southwest of Edmonton.

There are a lot of misconceptions around absinth, its effects, and how to drink it. It doesn't have to be as strong as people think, especially when consumed in small amounts combined with water to create the milky coloured chemical reaction.

We also have our whisky coming out at the end of the summer. We've been ageing it for three years so far and will release it as a 40-month whisky when we start selling in limited quantities.

On the Gin front, our Pino Gin is still new to our collection. We'll continue to come out with fresh batches of it using pinot casks from different wineries throughout BC.

What do you suggest for people in quarantine?

If you're a gin lover looking for the perfect survival kit, we recommend the Gin Trio available on our website for curbside pickup.

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