Calgary distillers, brewer shift to producing hand sanitizer during outbreak

Calgary's distillers are either preparing to make hand sanitizer or are already producing the product in the midst of a pandemic that calls for clean hands.  

Skunkworks handing out bottles, Annex Ale Projects and Burwood Distillery prepare to ramp up

Jordan Ramey, left, Marko Ramey and Ivan Cilic of Burwood Distillery are pictured in 2018. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

Calgary's distillers are either preparing to make hand sanitizer or are already producing the product in the midst of a pandemic that calls for clean hands. 

Skunkworks Distillery in the southeast says it has been giving it away to anyone who needs if they come in to pick up a bottle. 

"We started making it this past weekend," said Faye Warrington. "It's a fantastic use for distilled product that isn't good enough to make the cut for our moonshine."

Burwood Distillery in the northeast says it could produce thousands of bottles if need be, once it gets a federal stamp of approval on its paperwork. 

Ethanol and gel

Jordan Ramey, the chief operating officer of Burwood, says the ethanol they produce through distillation is an effective sanitizer alone, but no one wants to rub it on their hands for extended periods. 

"If you just give people straight ethanol and they're washing their hands with it all the time to sanitize, while that is effective, it dries the skin out quite quickly and then you get cracking," he said. 

Not to mention other problems that could arise from providing almost pure alcohol to the public. 

Ramey says they plan to mix it with aloe vera gel, some xanthan gum and a bit of scent and hope to have approval by Friday to start handing it out by next week. 

There will be limited amounts to buy at the distillery, but he also said they'll be giving it away as well.

"The logic would be, you know, limits per person and then disseminate it to folks that would show a need for it," said Ramey. 

Annex Ale's new project

Annex Ale Project is also getting into the sanitizer game as a way to bring in some money during tough economic times. 

It has partnered with two local distilleries to help make the product. 

"I was concerned about how I was going to keep this company afloat and pay my staff, and I had the idea that I could use some of the spirit that I already have here that I'm blending with our sodas and I could use that spirit and make hand sanitizer with it," said Andrew Bullied, founder and director of brewing operations at Annex. 

"And this idea has just kind of grown from there."

He said the brewery delivers what's called "wash" — essentially a simple beer — to the distilleries. They'll distil it and then ship back the ethanol to Annex for making into sanitizer. 

Bullied said they'll be giving some of the sanitizer away as well, donating it to organizations like the food bank and homeless shelters. 

He also said they might share their labels and process with others to ensure they can get up and running quickly. 

Financial crisis

Back at Burwood, Ramey says they're already feeling the pinch from the economic collapse following in the wake of the pandemic, much like Annex. 

The restaurant in the Burwood taproom is only grab-and-go or delivery through Skip the Dishes. Some staff have been let go. But the distillery is still humming. 

"We're able to provide a hand sanitizer to people or to folks, especially those that might need it. You know, that's our way of giving back to the community," said Ramey, who is also quick to remind people that handwashing with soap is still the better option.

"I mean, we live here, we work here. And, you know, we want to make sure that everybody is taken care of throughout this time of need in the next weeks."

Other distilleries are also looking at pumping out hand sanitizer during the crisis, including Eau Claire Distillery, which says hand sanitizer is one of several options for helping the community. 


Drew Anderson

Former CBC digital journalist

Drew Anderson was a digital journalist with CBC Calgary from 2015 to 2021 and is a third-generation Calgarian.