How factories change production to quickly fight coronavirus

Author: Norman Miller

(Image credit: Protolabs)

How does a gin company start creating sanitiser at short notice? Switching products can be faster and easier than you might imagine – and can help businesses survive, too.

In early March, the directors of London-based boutique liquor brand 58 Gin called an emergency meeting to discuss the future of their company.

With short-notice government lockdown policies causing every bar in the UK shut its doors, the primary market for their hand-crafted gin had instantly vanished.

“We suddenly had a business with no customers or income – and if we didn’t do something, and do it very, very quickly, we’d also have no business,” explains the distillery's managing director Carmen O'Neal. “How do we keep our business running? How do we save the team’s jobs?”

If we didn’t do something, and do it very, very quickly, we’d also have no business – Carmen O'Neal

The team made a quick and novel decision: they would stop distilling small-batch gin and instead start producing large-batch hand sanitiser – dubbed ‘Hand Gin-itizer’ – to aid in the battle against Covid-19.

“We’d stopped gin production within hours of the Prime Minister’s announcement, and were working through the finer details of the World Health Organization guidance on formulations to create an effective hand sanitiser,” said O'Neal.

Once the threat of sudden financial ruin eased, the actual process of making sanitiser rather than gin proved far less of a nightmare. “We follow the gin-making process in terms of purifying, then boiling the water in our 450-litre copper still. But instead of adding botanicals to make gin, we add a blend of ethanol, glycerol, hydrogen peroxide and essential oils,” explains O'Neal. The company uses Intermediate Bulk Containers (IBCs) to prevent any permanent contamination of the still by sanitiser chemicals.

Key ingredients for gin also turn out to be handy for hand sanitiser, too. “Because we already had a supply of alcohol at the distillery, we were able to denature this [alcohol] for making hand sanitiser,” says O'Neal. (Denaturing – rendering the alcohol to make it unfit for human consumption – is a legal requirement.) “This has been massively useful, as demand for denatured alcohol has spiked since the coronavirus outbreak.” Note that simply pouring gin over your hands won't work, as sanitisers require at least 60% alcohol concentration, far above the 40% spirits standard.

58 Gin, a London-based distillery, has switched to making sanitiser in response to the pandemic (Credit: 58 Gin)