News, Jazz, NPR
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

A D.C. Distillery Switches From Rum To Hand Sanitizer


Have you searched for hand sanitizer at pharmacies, grocery stores, gas stations, but they're out? What about a distillery? This week, the Tax and Trade Bureau gave alcohol beverage producers a special exemption to make hand sanitizer. NPR's Samantha Balaban reports from a distillery in the District of Columbia that's doing just that.



When I arrive at Cotton & Reed, D.C.'s first rum distillery, owners Reed Walker and Jordan Cotton are about to make a new batch of hand sanitizer.

JORDAN COTTON: Our first batch with the newly federally mandated hand sanitizer recipe.

BALABAN: Distilleries around the country have been halting regular production and using their high-proof alcohol to make hand sanitizer. And, as of Wednesday night, they now have the official government seal of approval.

COTTON: This was not necessarily an approved activity. But given the nature of the crisis, everybody kind of scrambled to it anyway.

BALABAN: The American Craft Spirit Association estimates that 75% of craft spirit producers are now making hand sanitizer. Says Reed Walker...

WALKER: So if you're making whiskey or gin or vodka or rum - anything, as long as you have spirit on hand that is above 60% alcohol.

BALABAN: Sixty percent alcohol is the minimum that the CDC recommends in order to be effective. Reed Walker and Jordan Cotton officially closed down the bar and tasting room at their distillery this week. The rest of their revenue normally comes from distributing rum to other bars and restaurants, many of which are also now closed, so they had to lay off all of their employees this week, too.

But the distillery still had a huge amount of alcohol on the premises, and the coronavirus crisis was growing every day. Cotton says it was an easy decision.

COTTON: We had a moment. We're all like, guys, I realize what we could do. And they're like, yeah, hand sanitizer. I know. We - yeah, we all had the same idea.

BALABAN: Their recipe calls for just four ingredients.

COTTON: Let's go grab some booze.

BALABAN: First, the booze.

COTTON: The alcohol that we're using for this is a redistillation of the waste products, the undesirable parts of any given batch that we make. We redistill those to capture the good ethanol out of that.

BALABAN: It comes out of a giant white plastic container.


BALABAN: Then, Jordan Cotton consults a spreadsheet.

COTTON: So we're going to need 3,416 milliliters of this.

BALABAN: This is all very scientific.

COTTON: One liter.


BALABAN: Pours into a tub and mixes it with...

COTTON: Sixty-eight milliliters of our vegetable glycerin here.

BALABAN: Then he adds in hydrogen peroxide...


BALABAN: ...And, last but not least, water.


BALABAN: Cotton mixes it all up with an immersion blender.


COTTON: All right.

BALABAN: And voila. We try it out.

WALKER: I'm curious how this batch smells and feels.


BALABAN: It's thinner than the consistency you're probably used to, but dries quickly and smells nice, too. Anyone who buys a bottle of rum at Cotton & Reed gets a free bottle of hand sanitizer. But most of it, they're donating.

COTTON: So far, we have donated these bottles to an organization that we're working with called Friends and Family Meal, which has been distributing groceries to service-industry professionals who've been affected by the crisis who work at bars and restaurants that have been ordered to close down. We've been in touch with the fire department around the corner. We're going to go drop some off there 'cause they say they can't get enough. During a time like this, everybody's trying to figure out what they can do to help, and this seemed like a good niche for us.

BALABAN: Reed Walker and Jordan Cotton say they're in this for the long haul because even if they run out of distilled alcohol before this pandemic is over, they do, after all, still have barrels and barrels of rum.

COTTON: As long as they give us the thumbs-up, we could do a bourbon barrel-aged-two-year hand sanitizer - limited edition.

WALKER: (Laughter).

BALABAN: Samantha Balaban, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

WUSF 89.7 depends on donors for the funding it takes to provide you the most trusted source of news and information here in town, across our state, and around the world. Support WUSF now by giving monthly, or make a one-time donation online.