Quarantine news: the Vermont distillery hand sanitizer roundup!

I’ve generally paused my reviewing due to the general social distancing orders because, let’s face it, these are some seriously challenging times for restaurants, and we all need to cut them slack. But it’s also been a very challenging time for our regions brewers and distillers, having taken serious hits to their restaurant accounts, and being very limited in their ability to do retail sales. Not content to just sit idly by, several distilleries around the country have worked on converting their normal beverage distilling expertise to a related application: making hand sanitizer, since the normal distribution channels of products like Purel has been extremely taxed, especially early in the pandemic. Indeed, here in Northern New England, several distilleries jumped right in and started making hand sanitizer right away: Smuggler’s Notch announced their effort on March 16th (the day the wide-scale shutdowns in VT and NH were announced), and Vermont breweries Silo and Caledonia Spirits announced similar efforts right away, as did Tamworth Distilling in New Hampshire. Since then, a good half dozen additional VT and NH distilleries followed suit. It’s not rocket science: the ideal hand sanitizer as a viricide simply requires approximately 70-80% pure alcohol (performing better than pure alcohol, which evaporates too quickly). I thought it would be interesting to round up a few different sanitizers and give them all a try.

Well, the fundamental nature of a “stay at home” order means, well, generally staying at home (although I’m amazed how many people I see that don’t get that fundamental idea). While I’m actually an “essential worker” in my day job, I’m still trying to minimize my travels and interactions, and that’s means I couldn’t just start driving around the states on a mission to collect sanitizer sample, and I don’t want to take supplies away from medical providers and first responders. Online sales have been spotty as well, since apparently even two months into our pandemic, the demand for craft, small batch, artisinal hand sanitizer (a phrase that even back in February I would have never have thought I would be uttering) remains quite high, with many places sold out. So instead, I opted to go with a handful of brands that I was able to acquire without heroic effort: Silo, Barr Hill, and Caledonia Spirits (the latter two from the folks at Small Batch Sanitizers, a nicely executed side effort of what’s normally a Lacrosse equipment dealer… Again, these are interesting times we live in.)

Silo’s product was the easiest for me to obtain, not because of the proximity of the distillery, but since we have large quantities of it at work. We’re essential workers, so we’ve been fairly highly staffed throughout the stay-at-home order, but we quickly exhausted our inventory of decontamination wipes and hand sanitizer. We quickly shifted to making our own spray bottles of 70% isopropyl alcohol, but a few weeks ago the company placed a bulk order of sanitizer. So, when asking if we had any of the Silo sanitizer handy, the answer was… “I hope you’ve got a container”. Indeed, I soon found myself looking at four 5 gallon buckets of the stuff, and poured out a few ounces to try out for a few days.

If you’re expecting a product like Purel: don’t. The Silo product was like most of the “small batch” sanitizers, being a relatively straightforward mix of alcohol, glycerol (to keep your skin from drying out), a bit of hydrogen peroxide, and some water; this isn’t by accident, the World Health Organization has a recommended recipe, so aside from small variations, all of these products are, in the end, nearly identical. A distinctly more watery consistency than your usual hand sanitizer, this is definitely more a functional product than a fancy one, but it’s quick to apply, relatively fast drying, doesn’t dry you skin out much, and as long as you aren’t expecting a perfumed smell, I actually prefer the mostly vodka aroma to the usually hand sanitizer Purel funk. (Silo doesn’t identify the specific alcohol breakdown, their product did smell like a mix of isopropyl and ethanol for my sample). Interestingly, I know a handful of people that got earlier batches of Silo sanitizer with a different purity level but specifying ethanol, so the formulation has changed over the last two months (shown here: my friend Wesley’s bottle).

Next up was a mail-ordered bottle of Barr Hill sanitizer, from one of my favorite Vermont breweries, Caledonia Spirits (makers of the excellent Barr Hill Gin, a softer, “Old Tom”-style sweeter gin that I use to change the minds of folks that “don’t like gin”). While the product itself was virtually identical to the the Silo product (perhaps with a slightly lower viscosity), Barr Hill’s version was notable for two other features: instead of coming in the useful generic squeeze bottle, the Barr Hill came delivered in what we’d usually call a “Honey Bear”, sourced from another Vermont company that usually produces honey and maple bottles. And, while I’m sure many of the producers are working on recycling other products, the Barr Hill product says much of the alcohol was distilled from otherwise-discarded beer and kombucha that would have been pure waste during the restaurant closures, so some nice bonus points for both recycling and avoiding potential runoff issues if the stuff had simply been poured out.

Our final “hand sanitizer” sample came from Smuggler’s Notch, a smaller, pocket-sized bottle. I’ve always particularly liked one product of Smuggler’s, and that’s their vodka, one of the more crisp vodkas available on the local distilling scene. Unlike the bulk Silo and the Barr Hill, the Smuggler’s project distinctly is labeled as “Ethanol”, and you can definitely smell it; the hand sanitizing effect with the Smuggler’s product smells just like rubbing a good quality vodka over your hands; it’s definitely a less “medicinal” smell than a lot of the other product, and probably the favorite of the ones I’ve tested.

While not technically a hand sanitizer, I also realized that I already had on more product on hand from a local distillery. I had tried to obtain a sample of Tamworth’s “White Mountain Hand Sanitizer”, with a nicely custom-made label like most of their products, but last week it was all sold out online. But I do have a nice bottle of one of their other products, the “Good Reverend’s Universal Spirit”, a 151-proof vodka that’s one of my favorite high-proof vodkas that’s high purity, has a very, very crisp and clean composition making it perfect for making your own infusions. But it’s also right in the perfect range for sanitizing; while lacking the glycerol component of the purpose-made sanitizers, it’s a surprisingly nice option as well (if expensive, since it’s brewed as a drinkable liquor); If I do manage to procure some White Mountain Hand Sanitizer, I expect it to be similar to the Smuggler’s product.

Anyone else have some local favorites? If so, send them and I’ll update! Quite frankly, I’m glad a lot of local distilleries have found a creative way to stay productive during these uncomfortable times. I’m hoping to happen across a few other products from other local distilleries, especially now that both demand and social distancing are lessening.

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