Q&A: Few’s Paul Hletko on Craft Hand Sanitizer and Surviving COVID-19

Suddenly, craft hand sanitizer is the hottest thing.

Distilleries around the world have contributed in making of these products in defense against COVID-19. While generating cheery headlines, what actually goes into hand sanitizers is not so obvious.

For a clearer picture of what it really means for distilleries to help in this production, we recently spoke with Paul Hletko. He’s founder and master distiller of Few Spirits, and former president of the American Craft Spirits Association.

Beverage Wholesaler: Few is helping make hand sanitizer. What exactly does this mean?

Few Spirits Founder Paul Hletko donates the distillery’s first batch of hand sanitizer to local first responders.

Paul Hletko: We’re distilling the ethanol and giving it to the people who are actually making hand sanitizer and know what they’re doing. There’s confusion out there that it’s easy to make hand sanitizer. But distilleries are not set up for that. We don’t have the ingredients, materials or packaging. All we have is the ethanol.

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It’s important to remember that the recipe for hand-sanitizer ethanol is so pure that we cannot make it. We’re a fundamentally different company than one that makes hand sanitizer. People think we can just adapt for that, but it’s not so simple.

BW: How difficult is it for distilleries to create this kind of ethanol?

PH: It’s a very different process. Our equipment is not designed to do this sort of production. Our equipment is designed to make lower-ABV alcohol as compared with the higher-ABV necessary for this ethanol. The ethanol recipe is 194 proof. Normally we don’t want to distill that pure. We distill more to around 130 proof.

When we distill that high for the ethanol, we’re pushing our equipment past what it would normally produce in terms of ABV. We run the stills way differently.

It’s very difficult to distill at 194 proof. Instead, we’re pushing our equipment to get to above 180. We’re going super slow, with the reflux cranked up. We’re using all the tricks we have in running our equipment. We’re at the very edge of what we’re physically capable of. Based on physics, our stills just cannot do any more. It’s not as simple as saying, ‘Well, we’ll just distill like this today’.

The other thing to remember, the ethanol used in hand sanitizer, it must be made at poisonous levels. People are not supposed to be drinking this stuff. That’s partly why hand sanitizer normally comes out in gelatinous form.

BW: If it’s so difficult, why are so many distilleries doing this?

PH: People want to give back right now, and distilleries are no different. We all want to do what we can to make the world a better place. Of course, it also gets good press, and there’s not a lot else to do right now. This gives us something to do.

At Few, we donated the first round of sanitizer we made. That cost us a lot of money at a time when we aren’t getting a lot of revenue. We donated that first round to the local police and fire departments.

BW: What is the cost of producing hand sanitizer?

PH: When you see the price of hand sanitizer from distilleries, we’re not trying to rip someone off — that’s actually what it costs.

The fundamental issue is that hand sanitizer is not normally a $60-per-gallon product. As soon as the hand sanitizer industry catches up to the demand, there’s going to be a lot of distilleries holding onto expensive hand sanitizer that nobody wants anymore.

BW: In general, how do you see craft distilling moving forwards in the pandemic?

PH: Nobody really knows what’s going to happen in the future. The hand sanitizer craze has bought some people some time by giving distilleries something to sell. But the only way for businesses to stay open is to have access to a marketplace, which nobody really does right now. On-premise is dead, and all our taprooms are closed.

As for the retail industry, it continues to focus on commodity brands. Consumer panic buying is over, but they’re still focusing on commodity brands. We’re not seeing a lot of focus on craft products.

I think it will be a blood bath in the next few weeks. All those small-business loans are great, but that’s more debt. And it’s tough to take on more debt when you don’t have any idea when society will open again. A lot of people out there are in a whole lot of trouble right now. The government programs have their hearts in the right place, but we need way more than what the programs can offer. The programs cannot take place of an actual functioning society.

BW: Which distilleries will survive this crisis?

PH: The distilleries who make it will be larger and better managed. Realistically, that means companies that are more established, and have had the time to get a little bit more financial backing.

This economy is not good for anybody, of course, but the distilleries who survive will have access to more investment and debt capital. They’ll have the better management teams, and a better route to market. These distilleries have more sway with retailers, and can get back into the game quicker when things begin to clear up.

This interview was edited and condensed for publication.

Kyle Swartz is editor of Beverage Wholesaler magazine. Reach him at kswartz@epgmediallc.com or on Twitter @kswartzz. Read his recent piece How Does Craft Beer Survive COVID-19?

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