Don’t Drink the Hand Sanitizer

Distilleries get into the hand sanitizer business during COVID-19

Andrew Lane stands in Tumbleroot Brewery's dark, quiet taproom as voices drift in from the distillery just next door. He's the head brewer at Tumbleroot in the times before COVID-19—but like other distillery employees in the state, he is now in charge of making hand sanitizer.

Tumbleroot started producing hand sanitizer around the beginning of April but the planning process began as soon as stay-at-home orders came down from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's office in mid-March and businesses were forced to close. Almost all of Tumbleroot's business—its taprooms and sales of alcohol to local bars— disappeared.

And, of course, the mad rush on hand sanitizer and toilet paper in all of the grocery stores and pharmacies pushed Santa Fe distilleries to get creative with their own sanitizer recipes, based on guidelines released by the World Health Organization.

"Essentially as soon as the lockdown happened we started ordering the supplies we needed to do it," Lane says. "It's just that everyone is trying to do it at the same time."

There are some differences between the typical hand sanitizer you would buy at the store and the distillery concoctions: The latter smells like a straight shot of grain alcohol and has the consistency of one, too. (Pro tip: Don't drink it.) There's also no gel in Tumbleroot's sanitizer or in the version marketed by Santa Fe Spirits across town.

"Usually sanitizer has aloe vera, it's usually a gel, but in this case, this is the basic requirements for hand sanitizer, so it's essentially 80% alcohol, a little bit of glycerin and a little bit of hydrogen peroxide," Lane says. "It's very thin…but it will disinfect surfaces and your hands."

Tumbleroot offers two sizes: a 32-ounce spray bottle ($15) and a 6-ounce bottle ($5). Thousands of both sizes have sold in the last few weeks. The brewery supplies several businesses and organizations around town as well, including the Santa Fe Sheriff's Department.

Santa Fe Spirits was also hard-hit by the stay-at-home orders and the closing of its two tasting rooms, according to owner Colin Keegan. Keegan's head distiller, too, is now his "full-time hand sanitizer expert," he says.

Hand sanitizer unexpectedly became the company's main source of income and what is keeping all of the employees on the payroll. The team at Santa Fe Spirits also came up with a simple, no-fluff combination of ingredients: 80% alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, glycerin and purified water.

Similar to Tumbleroot, the hand product at Santa Fe Spirits is thin since it lacks gel. It can take some getting used to, but it does the job of killing germs (and COVID-19).

Keegan and other distillery owners are vying for the ingredients to make hand sanitizer as other businesses also rush to do so. Both Tumbleroot and Santa Fe Spirits report difficulty finding the right bottles and caps to continue producing sanitizer.

"We can get this now, but we can't get this, so we have to wait and get that and then that's out again," Lane says of trying to wrangle all of the ingredients at one time. "The supplies of everything are in very short supply."

Keegan is worried about what could happen later in the summer in terms of revenue for his business. He wants to lobby New Mexico officials to allow alcohol distributors online orders so he can ship around the country as hand sanitizer sales level off. A federal Paycheck Protection Program loan also came through to keep the business afloat, as well as some curbside sales of alcohol.

But for now, local governments and large businesses are buying large amounts of sanitizer product from Keegan. The City of Santa Fe bought 500 gallons and Los Alamos National Laboratories bought 100, Keegan says. He is also selling sanitizer to FedEx, UPS and the Santa Fe County Fire Department.

Santa Fe Spirits has the largest variety of sizes: 4-ounce squeeze bottle ($4), 32-ounce spray bottle ($15), half-gallon refill ($18) and one gallon refill ($30). There is also a 750 ml ($25) Expedition 151 high-proof vodka sanitizer (Again, do not drink, it's easy to mix up with their other vodka bottle).

"This is keeping us alive at the moment…because our only way to sell alcohol is through a distributor, that's the legal system," Keegan says.

With local liquor stores closed and distribution networks jammed up, that's not happening very well right now for either Tumbleroot or Santa Fe Spirits.

"There's only a few places we can sell our spirits to that are still open like Trader Joe's, Whole Foods—the bigger chains are selling the larger-brand products. For someone like us, we're not in those big stores."

Email to order hand sanitizer and pick up curb-side once a week from Tumbleroot. Get ordering instructions for Santa Fe Spirits email

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