Canberra’s distilleries are literally getting into the spirit of the times by turning their products into ethanol for use as hand sanitiser by health services workers at the frontline of the COVID-19 virus.
Tim Reardon from The Canberra Distillery told Region Media his production line is now 100 per cent ethanol (pure alcohol). On Friday (27 March), his staff were busy turning their batch of merlot grapes into alcohol.
It may be the next best thing to turning water into wine.
“We’re turning some Murrumbateman merlot into rubbing alcohol, which is the base ingredient for hand sanitiser and other sterilising products,” Mr Reardon said.
“It’s not Murrumbateman’s finest. It’s basically the stuff that the quality wineries reject, so we’ve been buying quantities of that, given that much of the harvest was affected by smoke from the bushfires.
“We distil the alcohol out and sell it as ethanol. We’re producing about 150 litres a day but we’re looking to scale that up to produce between 200 and 250 litres a day.”
The 23-year-old owner of Unicorn Spirits, Ben Osborne, usually produces quality vodkas for the Canberra and global market.
He said he is very proud that at least 1,000 litres of his 96.6 per cent vodka is being used to make sanitiser exclusively for Canberra hospitals. He is also making his own hand sanitiser from a World Health Organisation recipe.
“It’s kind of cool to know a little bit of unicorn magic – without the glitter – will be saving lives,” he said.
After the Sydney Royal Easter Show was cancelled, he was left with 6,900 bottles of vodka and only his website to sell them through.
“All major markets make up over 85 per cent of Unicorn Spirits’ revenue and they have all been cancelled. We are lucky to have an online store which is currently offering free shipping Australia wide that is helping keep us going in these tough times.”
Mr Osborne said he received a call earlier this week from Dr Toby Angstmann, the owner and head distiller of Underground Spirits. Dr Angstmann is leading the coordinated effort of Canberra’s distilleries to provide their products which will be used to make hand sanitiser, which is in very short supply in the region.
Underground Spirits has stopped its production of spirits and is working with the ACT Government to ensure Canberra’s medical staff had enough sanitiser and sterilising solution during the coronavirus crisis.
Dr Angstmann also has a background in medicine and chemistry and said their ethanol will go to healthcare workers including GPs, doctors, nurses, theatre staff and emergency services.
Mr Osborne said it was incredible to know that a little bit of his vodka was helping to save lives.
“That 6900 bottles of what would have been Unicorn Vodka is being turned into life-saving sanitiser for the local legends on the frontline battling the virus,” he said.
Other distilleries to come on board with Underground Spirits, Unicorn Vodka and The Canberra Distillery include Big River, Local Spirits and Capital Brewing Co.
The Beenleigh Rum Distillery in south-east Queensland has also said it will donate 100,000 litres of ethanol to the Queensland Government to distribute to other manufacturers to make half a million bottles of sanitiser.
For the Canberra companies involved, it is a great way to keep their businesses afloat.
“To continue to trade at the moment is really important,” said Mr Reardon, who has also changed his business to produce only ethanol.
“We have staff who want to work and want to be gainfully employed and we’re very fortunate to be in the position to do something constructive.
“Our minds are very much with our industry colleagues in hospitality who are having a terrible time at present. It feels more like a ‘war effort’ than I thought possible.
“For us at the Canberra Distillery, this shock has meant that we have re-calibrated to make a product for sterilisation purposes and hand sanitiser. This isn’t a big change for us as we have always had this capability, just a change in focus.”
Mr Reardon is also an economist and said the sooner we can shorten the pause that businesses and people are going through, the sooner the economy can begin to recover.
“I think that we are fortunate in Canberra that we have a relatively stable economy here and aren’t yet experiencing the same level of a downturn as in other parts of the country,” he said.
Mr Osborne also urged Canberrans to support the local businesses who are doing it tough.
“We’re proud to be supporting the ACT Government and the Canberra hospitals and health system in this crazy time. Our local distilling industry is really coming together to save some lives and do some good.”