B.C. distilleries that pivoted to making hand sanitizer during the COVID-19 pandemic are now being ordered to stop.
Clay Potter, co-owner of The Moon Under Water Brewery, Pub and Distillery in Victoria, says his team began producing hand sanitizer when the need was immense and the supply uncertain.
“We have all the equipment in place, it took some trial and error to learn how to make it properly and to get it tested,” said Potter, who is also the brewmaster at the distillery.
He said he’s invested in ingredients like glycerin and other materials to make sanitizer and planned to continue producing the alcohol-based disinfectant. But he received a notice by email April 7, and follow-up letter a few days later, from the province stating all production of sanitizer must stop by May 8. All remaining stock must be sold or donated by November.
Distillers say there is no need for a hard deadline to stop producing sanitizer and they feel betrayed after stepping up for the public good during the pandemic.
“It’s just sort of another barrier for us. I’ve got about a dozen or so four-litre jugs still and then I have a lot of spoiled alcohol in the back that is just waiting to be distilled,” he said, adding he will be making as much sanitizer as he can before the deadline.
Hand sanitizer production got a temporary authorization from B.C.’s Liquor and Cannabis Regulation Branch in March 2020, the early days of the pandemic.
“It’s not a huge money maker for us, but it does help. When the pubs were shut down and our in-house lounge was shut down, we had a lot of beer that went stale and we still haven’t quite recovered,” said Potter. “Rather than dumping it, we’ve been distilling it into sanitizer.”
Distilleries on deadline to sell remaining sanitizer
Tyler Dyck is the president of the Craft Distillers Guild of British Columbia and the owner of Okanagan Spirits Craft Distillery in Kelowna and Vernon. He said putting distilleries on a deadline is adding unnecessary stress to an industry already hard hit during the pandemic.
“A huge chunk of those distilleries that cut off a full arm to help support their communities in a time of need, not only did they not get any help for it, now they’re effectively paying double for it because they have this product that could help them recoup some of that costs.”
His family-run business still has thousands of bottles of sanitizer left over, which they plan to donate to women’s shelters and medical frontline workers.
“This product can be used for absolutely nothing else. So if distillers do not sell it by November, they basically have to dump it down the drain,” he said.
In a statement to CBC News, the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General said the temporary authorization was an “interim measure intended to address the shortage of hand sanitizer early in the pandemic.” The move to now stop sanitizer production is in line with the province lifting mask mandates and vaccine card requirements, it said.
Distillers feel slighted by government
At the beginning of the pandemic, the prime minister called on Canadian industry to help produce protective supplies that were hard to find. At the height of the shortage, about a dozen distilleries in B.C. were supplying hospitals, government offices and emergency workers throughout the province, and producing tens of thousands of litres for free.
Dyck says during that time period, the federal government spent hundreds of millions of tax dollars procuring sanitizer from outside Canada. Because the market was flooded with imported, foreign-made sanitizer, some B.C. distilleries are left with stockpiles they now can’t sell.
“After all of that, provincial and federal governments go out and buy cheap, internationally made hand sanitizer and bypass the ones that have had their back,” said Dyck. “That’s not just saying something. That’s a slap in the face.”
Dyck said the latest notice from B.C.’s Liquor and Cannabis Regulation Branch is like putting salt in the wounds of distillers who were hemorrhaging money due to COVID-19 restrictions but still took on hefty upfront costs to make sanitizer.
“In hindsight, a lot of businesses got themselves into very financially dire straits by doing the right thing for their communities, and they would do it again. Don’t get me wrong…. They probably might have scaled it back and not produced as much,” said Potter.