Rufus Z and Valentin Ponyaev at their Auckland distillery, CarbonSix (Photo: Supplied)
Rufus Z and Valentin Ponyaev at their Auckland distillery, CarbonSix (Photo: Supplied)

KaiMarch 22, 2020

From vodka to hand sanitiser: Boutique distilleries switch up to tackle Covid-19

Rufus Z and Valentin Ponyaev at their Auckland distillery, CarbonSix (Photo: Supplied)
Rufus Z and Valentin Ponyaev at their Auckland distillery, CarbonSix (Photo: Supplied)

New Zealand craft distilleries are part of a global trend of temporarily halting production of spirits to turn their hands to a sought-after product in the fight against coronavirus.

Boutique distilleries are diversifying in response to the Covid-19 outbreak, switching production from vodka and gin to hand sanitiser. 

Auckland-based distillery CarbonSix, which produces its own vodka and gin as well as contract-manufacturing spirits for a range of other brands, began making hand sanitiser a month-and-a-half ago – the first New Zealand distillery to do so, as far as its founders are aware.

“It was when China had just shut down and nothing was coming out of there,” says one of the directors of the company, who goes by the name Rufus Z. “We saw that no one was making hand sanitiser in New Zealand and thought that was weird. There was demand for it and we had the facility to do it, so that’s what we did.”

It was a learning curve for Z and business partner Valentin Ponyaev, however. “We had to figure out what we had to do and what the market really wanted,” says Z. “Initially we did more of a liquid form rather than a gel form, but people wanted a gel, and making gel on a large scale is not as easy as you think, so that required a bit of research.”

CarbonSix hand sanitiser has been available at Chemist Warehouse stores, but the company is now focusing on supplying health professionals only, says Z, to avoid stoking the panic that has led to shortages and price gouging. Countdown has recently placed limits on hand sanitiser purchases of two per person. “It’s about people on the front line, basically, rather than letting people hoard up on stock,” says Z. 

CarbonSix’s hand sanitiser is made from ethanol, water, aloe vera, essential oils, glycerine and a gellifying agent called carbomer. While the company distils its own alcohol for use in its spirits, for the hand sanitiser it has been sourcing ethanol from Fonterra, which produces the bulk of it in this country. 

While high-quality food-grade ethanol is not essential for use in hand sanitiser, CarbonSix is considering making its own because the current demand on Fonterra’s ethanol has made it difficult to get hold of. Sourcing other ingredients and packaging has also proved tricky as the pandemic has progressed, says Z. But ethanol comes from sugar, so this plan would rely on the company being able to get hold of decent amounts of that, he explains. “There’s quite a bit to juggle to make sure that everything’s OK in terms of supplies. At this stage it’s a brutal time out there for everyone, trying to source ingredients.”

For the meantime CarbonSix has switched its production entirely over to hand sanitiser and will continue while the demand is there and ingredients can be sourced, but the pair hope to be able to return their focus to making vodka and gin eventually.

Other New Zealand distilleries that have begun making hand sanitiser in response to the outbreak include Northland’s Sovrano Limoncello and the Wairarapa’s Reid + Reid gin. Reid + Reid co-founder Chris Reid told RNZ’s Morning Report the company was trialling making hand sanitiser after being approached by various people and businesses, and thought “it was the least we could do”.

Meanwhile, both Hallertau in Clevedon and Good George Brewery in Hamilton have branched out from beer to hand sanitiser. While Hallertau’s experiments are still in the early stages, Good George’s own-brand sanitiser is just days away. The brewery has a small distillery on site and its first 1000-litre batch will be ready on Monday, after which it will go free of charge to Good George pubs’ staff and customers, and anyone else in Hamilton who might need it, reports the Herald.

Overseas, another brewery with a distilling arm, Scottish beer giant BrewDog, is making hand sanitiser to give away to those who need it. Whisky distillers in Scotland are getting on board too, as are distillers across the US, and spirits group Pernod Ricard has announced it’s donating 70,000 litres of pure alcohol to a major hand sanitiser producer in France. Across the ditch, Australian cricket great Shane Warne, who now owns a distillery, has converted it to a hand sanitiser factory to supply hospitals in Western Australia.

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