When the coronavirus began to shut down life as we all know it, Broken Trail Brewery and Distillery stepped up to make hand sanitizer, donating much of it to first responders in Albuquerque. Since then, 11 other distilleries have jumped on board, helping out across the state.
The full list includes Algodones Distillery, Dry Point Distillers (Las Cruces), Glencoe Distillery (Ruidoso), Three Rivers Brewery and Distillery (Farmington), Tumbleroot Brewery and Distillery (Santa Fe), and the Albuquerque-based group of Hollow Spirits, La Reforma, Left Turn, Safe House, Still Spirits, and Troubled Minds (Tractor). As many of those distilleries are also breweries, we reached out to see how things all came together and what the plan is going forward.
Broken Trail owner Matt Simonds got this whole thing started, so we start with him.
“The idea first brewed in my head the Wednesday of the first case in NM, March 11, while listening to speeches from the Governor and President,” Matt wrote in an email. “We were discussing at work that day the ridiculousness of selling Purell on ebay for hundreds of dollars. That evening, it hit me that this pandemic was real and thought — if we could put this together and give it out to people, that would be pretty awesome. So I started researching. I was probably up until 3 a.m. scouring the internet and my old chemistry textbooks to see what it would take to do this. It was important that the sanitizer be done correctly, quickly, and cheaply.
“The next morning, I hit the telephone. I was reaching out to suppliers for chemicals, containers, all the components to make this happen. By noon, David Rosebeary, our brewer, and I were batching it up. By 2 p.m. that afternoon (Thursday), we had free sanitizer available at our Uptown Tasting Room. Hand Sanitizer might not be our best beer, but the effort is one I’m most proud of.”
Making the switch from distilled spirits to hand sanitizer is not exactly a simple process, either.
“The actual ‘making’ is relatively simple, much easier than making beer or whiskey,” Matt explained. “There are three ingredients — you put them together, mix it up, really that is it. The challenge is in making sure you are absolutely doing it correctly — using the wrong alcohol proof or too much peroxide can make the end product dangerous, or perhaps worse, ineffective. Because this is a drug, not a beverage, we must be extremely diligent in recording lot numbers, expiration dates, and doing quality assurance checks.
“Also, the dilutions can be tricky. I think this is really the most difficult part and why I advise people at home not to try making their own. First — WASH YOUR HANDS! The CDC is still saying that washing your hands is the best method to get rid of viruses. Second, straight ethanol is really an ineffective sanitizer. Not because it doesn’t kill, but because it evaporates too quickly to do anything. So you have to get the dilution right or else it is ineffective. But, if you dilute it too much it won’t kill anything, either. Also, ethanol is pretty harsh on the skin and ends up drying it out. This makes the skin more susceptible to infections. The formula is available on the internet, but the devil is in the details.”
So yes, please leave this process to the experts.
“The hardest part has been getting all the ingredients and packaging in place,” Matt continued. “First, ethanol is all gone, then I can get it. Then bottles are gone, then I got them. Then the ethanol I thought I had is gone. I’ve been putting in some overtime trying to get all the pieces in place, and there have been more than one sleepless night recently. But, everything is finally coming together.
“Within the first week we were able to disperse a thousand 2-ounce containers, plus almost 200 gallons to police and fire departments in Albuquerque. We definitely have plans to keep making more. I have a tanker truck of ethanol being delivered this weekend. My hope is to have it bottled and sent out by the end of the week.”
Keeping up with demand did prove to be a challenge for Matt and Broken Trail, so it became time to call on his colleagues.
“After the first wave of sanitizer, we were in a strange spot,” he wrote. “I was completely out of the necessary ethanol to keep making sanitizer. However, we were getting phone calls and emails and social media requests almost endlessly. At that point my role shifted a little bit. I started facilitating with the NM Distillers Guild members who was making what, who had what ingredient, so that I could send out orders to all the distilleries. I was on the phone with ethanol suppliers trying to secure more. I was working with suppliers to get bottles and jugs, which was becoming more and more difficult to procure.
“One of the most humbling part of this was when I called my friend Brian with Dion’s Pizza to ask for help getting two semi-trucks (full) of gallon jugs. Well, not only was Dion’s able to lean on their supplier for help, he told me that Dion’s would pay for one of the trucks. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve broken down from emotion these past two weeks, but I can tell you how grateful I am for Dion’s.”
The other distilleries had taken notice even before Matt reached out to them through their guild. Patrick Liessmann at Three Rivers wrote that he and his team have already made 100 gallons for the Four Corners area.
“We have donated to our local police force and the Navajo Nation police force,” Liessmann wrote. “We have also donated to the City of Farmington, local doctors’ offices, and other home health care providers and first responders. Our goal is not to do too much single-use stuff, but instead get as much bulk product as possible to the people on the front lines of the fight. Doctors, nurses, first responders, and home health care providers. Pretty much anyone at risk or dealing with an at-risk population.”
Jason Kirkman at Tumbleroot said in a phone interview that federal approve came early.
“The TTB regulatory agency gave us the green light, the license to make it, and gave us the formula from the World Health Organization,” he said. “We feel like we’ve been nationalized, given that mandate by the feds. There are a few distilleries who came up with that on their own. … Matt down at Broken Trail was the first person to get on board with that, though a lot of other distilleries came up with that independently. He contacted me directly. We are in a different space, we make all of our spirits from scratch. Other distilleries having that product (ethanol) on hand were able to turn that into sanitizer.”
There was certainly a demand in Santa Fe, as Tumbleroot quickly discovered.
“Whole Foods was a big one, they put in a big order, they’re one of our best accounts,” Jason said. “It took us a little longer to get rolling. It was a bit of a nightmare. So from production to unusual demands to transportation, everything is kind of a mess. We tried to get containers of certain sizes. Starting the end of this week we’re working with Matt doing bulk orders. A lot of other distilleries are pooling their needs to do group buys. We’ll get a tote of neutral spirits today or tomorrow to start making it according to what the (WHO) has laid out. I think all the distilleries around the state are on point with that.”
Jason said getting containers was the hardest part, but he was able to get a shipment of quart-sized containers.
“We’ll hopefully know by the end of next week if we’ll be able to do quart spray bottles for behind the scenes for a lot of these businesses that are staying (open),” Jason said.
Matt wrote that the group effort is giving him hope in this otherwise tough time period.
“We have thousands of gallons in requests for sanitizer pending,” he wrote. “I am so proud to be a part of the NM Distillers Guild and the effort we have all made to ensure everyone — but especially those on the front lines in high risk environments — have sanitizer.”
What started with a donation to the Albuquerque Police Department has only continued to grow.
“It really all got started by helping out the police department,” Matt wrote. “I’ve laughed, but it is true, that it is a bad sign when the fire department, police department, EMS, hospitals, gas readers, construction workers, FAA, corrections facilities, child care centers, city managers, and truckers are all calling the distillery for help. I’m humbled and honored to think that we are. In coordination with the NMDG, we are trying to get the city and state involved so that anyone in the state that needs sanitizer can get it.”
Matt wrote that he is happy to take additional orders, and to make use of the network of distilleries throughout the state to work together to make sure all of those are filled.
“In addition to all the distilleries making sanitizer, the NMDG is working together to get sanitizer to workers in high-risk areas,” Matt wrote. “We are providing 1-gallon jugs to these agencies for $20 per gallon. Individual distilleries may have different sizes or configurations at their locations as well. Anyone in a high-risk job is welcome to contact me at email@example.com. I will take down your request and disperse it among the participating distilleries to fulfill it as quickly as possible. We are currently behind about 1-1/2 to 2 weeks, but we are each working around the clock to make sanitizer as quickly as possible.”
All of this is helping keep the distillery and brewery staffs working, too, which is helping slightly under the tough economic circumstances that all are experiencing.
“Things are definitely tight,” Liessmann wrote. “We usually have four different businesses that we operate, three of which have been shut down. We have had to lay off roughly 60-plus employees. We are still doing pizza, burgers, and beer/spirits to-go, and that for now is keeping the lights on and our skeleton crew going. The coolest thing about this sanitizer project has been seeing the community rally behind it. All of the sanitizer we have produced was paid for by donations from other local businesses, and that’s allowed us to produce a lot more of it without cutting into our non-existent margins. It’s been really cool to be a part of it!”
“We do a lot of spirits distribution, (so) we’re actually quite set on the product itself,” Jason said. “Then we had to shut down our taprooms and let go of all the staff. It will be nice to figure out a production line where we can get together safely and have some distance, but also work together again and get these guys back to employment and doing something useful, because they’re bored out of their minds.”
Matt summed it up as best he could with a personal story.
“This is such a strange combination of stress unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, but without any sense that I can do anything,” he wrote. “Really it is such a helpless feeling. A month ago, if my business struggled it was probably my fault, and maybe I could do something about it. But now, I am so afraid of an enemy I can’t see or fight or work around. The stress is palpable. I’ve cried more in these past weeks than perhaps ever in my life. But, I’ve laughed and cheered, too.
“On Friday, March 13, when they announced the first school shutdown, it was my little girl’s birthday. So we went outside for a bike ride. She’d never successfully ridden and I’d almost given up hope. But, that evening, on the first try, she started doing it. I don’t think she’s stopped riding since (sometimes in the parking lot of our new facility). There are little moments amongst all this shit that are so beautiful, so valuable. I hope I hang on to those memories more than I remember the stresses of the lockdown.”
All of us in the Crew raise our glasses in thanks and appreciation to all the hard-working people at the brewstilleries and distilleries across New Mexico. Thank you to Matt, Jason, and Patrick for responding to our questions.
Stay safe out there, everyone.