Wright & Brown Distilling Co. has been in West Oakland for five years, making award-winning bourbon, rye whiskey, rum, and single malt. Each one of their bottles are made onsite, starting with a 250 gallon copper pot. Many of their barrels have been aging for about three years or more. Their brandy is made from organic Northern California grapes and much of their whiskey is locally malted.
Now, Wright & Brown Distilling Co. is one of the few distilleries in the Bay Area who have pivoted to making hand sanitizer for first responders. Hand sanitizer is in high demand but limited in supply since coronavirus hit the U.S.
Wright & Brown has already donated 150 gallons to local agencies such as Highland Hospital, the Oakland Fire Department, Asian Health Services, Self Help for the Elderly, and several homeless service agencies. The company is one of just a few Oakland-based distilleries making hand sanitizer: another one is Oakland Spirits Company, as well as a few more in Alameda County including Falcon Spirits in Richmond.
When COVID-19 made its appearance in the Bay Area, co-owner Earl Brown’s first thoughts were of his young children, elderly parents, brother with compromised lungs, and how it would affect the larger community. The distillery was also immediately affected because the stay-at-home executive order from Governor Gavin Newsom shut down bars, restaurants, specialty bottle shops, and many community-based places which were some of distillery’s biggest outlets and clients.
As COVID-19 affected their core business, Brown said he didn’t think he would be making hand sanitizer at the distillery. For about a week and a half, people began contacting the distillery through their website and asking if they were going to produce hand sanitizer. “Initially I held off,” Brown said, “because I assumed industrialized companies would ramp up production and fill the vacuum.”
Seeing the continued shortage of hand sanitizer, Wright & Brown, which was founded by Brown and Daniel Wright, decided to jump in after people continued to reach out, and saw that distilleries around the country were beginning to make hand sanitizer.
The sanitizer is made from a by-product, called heads and tails, of the brandy, whiskey and rum. Through re-distilling their brandy by-product, the distillery, so far, has been able to extract 150 gallons of high proof spirits to make the hand sanitizer. However, Brown made clear that using this by-product is not sustainable if the rum, whiskey, and other spirits are not continuing to be produced. They were able to re-distill from their brandy product and will tap into their reserves until they get their core production up and running again. For now, the distillery can do a one-time re-distillation of their rums and whiskey heads and tails to get more of the ethanol needed for the sanitizer.
The TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) issued a temporary guidance that is allowing distillers to make the sanitizer. They must follow the World Health Organization’s strict recipe guidelines such as making sure the finished product is over 60% alcohol by volume. One key ingredient is glycerin, which is a vegetable sugar that stabilizes the ethanol alcohol. Because this high proof alcohol has a very low boiling point, it evaporates very quickly. The glycerin is what allows the alcohol to stay on your hands long enough to break the virus down and therefore sanitize.
Starting this week, they plan to sell bottles of whisky and rum from the distillery for curbside pickup. Once their next batch of sanitizer is produced, they will be selling a limited amount to the public, and will be increasing the amount produced for first responders.
The distillery will continue making the sanitizer as long as they are able to fill the need. “It does feel good to be able to step in and make something useful and I feel good about that,” Brown said.
While the distillery took on this project by themselves, it was also a community effort. The distillery had an especially hard time finding bottles and containers to put the sanitizer in and this is where community partners stepped in. Brown encourages everyone to hold on to their mist bottles and containers because of this shortage. He mentioned Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco that donated the glycerin, Alexandre Family Creamery who are milk producers in San Leandro who donated 100 large plastic bottles and tops, and the designer who made the label for them for free. Wright & Brown Distilling Co. is just one of the many Oakland-based community businesses doing their part in the midst of this health pandemic.
A nice byproduct, Brown said, is that the locally-made hand sanitizer smells pretty good. “It smells more like a nice brandy than some chemical product.”