Across the Caribbean, rum and gin distillers use their alcohol to fight coronavirus

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A report by Jacqueline Charles for The Miami Herald.

With hand sanitizers now hard, if not impossible, to find even on Caribbean store shelves, rum and gin companies across the region are trying to do their part to curb the spread of the coronavirus as the number of infections continue to increase worldwide.

Some of the top brands in the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Jamaica and Haiti have temporarily shifted production from spirits to manufacturing alcohol-based hand sanitizers and high-proof disinfectants to minimize transmission of the virus. One distillery even went as far as having workers cut and then hand-peel individual aloe leaves to add to its alcohol blend.

“Buckets and buckets load,” said Aaron Salyer, who runs operations for Blue Light Distillery in Grenada, which began production last week and sells its 16.9 ounce bottles of hand sanitizers for $9 in local supermarkets. “In [crisis] times, you’ve just gotta be malleable.”

Salyer said the company, founded by Canadian Jim Jardine, got the idea for sanitizers after seeing other gin companies in the United Kingdom make similar shifts as the pandemic threatened to put them out of business.

The global pandemic, which passed 1 million infections worldwide Thursday, has had a “99 percent” effect on Blue Light Distillery, which started operations in 2018 and is the island’s only gin distillery, he said. The decision to revamp production from hand-crafted gin made with wild Canadian juniper berries to aloe vera-infused hand sanitizers, Salyer said, was twofold: One, they had access to the high-percentage alcohol needed to make antiseptics, and second, it was a way “to keep us afloat for the next three months until everything calms down again.”

“All of the hotels are closed, all of the bars are closed, all of the cruise ships that were coming have stopped,” said Salyer, explaining that the micro-distillery’s business model is focused on Grenada’s tourism market.

Among the last batch of Caribbean islands to confirm the presence of COVID-19 within its borders, Grenada confirmed its first positive case of the respiratory disease on March 22. The patient was a 50-year-old woman who began showing symptoms a day after arriving from the United Kingdom on March 16.

Almost immediately hand sanitizers started flying off store shelves, said Kirk Seetahal of Grenada Distillers Limited, which produces Clark’s Court Rum. “You couldn’t find hand sanitizer anywhere on the island. You couldn’t find stuff like Vitamin C,” he said. “For us, there was a cry; there was a demand, and so we just felt the best thing … was, we had to do our part.”

The company, he said, immediately started production on 1,200 cases of sanitizer spray before it had to temporarily cease operations Monday when a seven-day, 24-hour curfew went into effect in Grenada to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Some of the sanitizers, Seetahal said, went to restock supermarkets and pharmacies’ shelves, and sell for about $9 for a 25.3 ounce bottle. Others have been given to employees and donated to senior citizens’ and children’s homes, prisons, the police and mental health facilities.

In addition to Grenada’s distillers, other rum manufacturers as well as Puerto Rico’s Bacardi and Serralles and Venezuela’s Santa Teresa distillery have also added disinfectant gel and antiseptics to their product line in recent weeks.

Puerto Rican manufacturer Olein Refinery recently produced more than 1.7 million 10-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer, using Bacardi alcohol. Much of it was given away to police, nurses, nonprofits and others on the front lines of the coronavirus.

Puerto Rico’s Bacardi plant, which produces 80 percent of the company’s rum, is tweaking its production to pump out ethanol used to make hand-sanitizers. 

While alcohol sales in the United States don’t appear to be hurting from the coronavirus — consumer shopping data from Denver-based Ibotta show double-digit percentage increases in the past week — in the Caribbean, it has been just the opposite, Seetahal and others say.

Not only are liquor sales down because of the stringent measures Caribbean governments have been imposing, but domestic rum sales have started to take even more of a hit after Grenada, St. Lucia and Belize announced this week that such sales are banned locally amid even tighter quarantine measures.

In Jamaica, however, it’s not an alcohol ban that’s hurting domestic consumption but rather Jamaicans’ relationship with alcohol.

“In Jamaica, alcohol is a social habit. It’s something you do when you’re out with your friends or when you’re gathered as a group. So we are already seeing a downturn in our sales,” said Tanikie McClarthy Allen, senior director of public affairs and sustainability for J. Wray & Nephew, a distiller, blender and bottler of rum. The company, known for its over-proof Jamaican white rum and Appleton Estate brands, controls about 80 percent of the spirits market on the island.

Allen said even before the dip in sales and Jamaica’s 47 confirmed cases and two coronavirus-related deaths as of Thursday, J. Wray & Nephew had already repurposed its plants to help combat COVID-19 in Jamaica. The decision was taken almost as soon as the country confirmed its first infection on March 10.

Using ingredients already in stock — 70 percent ethyl alcohol, reverse osmosis water and Xanthan gum — the company produced 100,000 liters of the high-strength alcohol and hand sanitizer for hospitals and vulnerable groups in the population, Allen said.

“We did not sell one bottle,” she said, of the 195-year-old company. “We were literally the first company registered in Jamaica. We pride ourselves on being a part of every national response there has been throughout the 195 years.

“We are part of the fabric, we are part of the story of Jamaica, we are integrated in our communities, we care about our staff. We back that up with action,” Allen added. “For us, this is what we thought was the right thing to do to protect staff, community and ultimately. country, and that was our motivation.”

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The Dominican Republic’s Ron Barceló and Cervecería Nacional Dominicana(CND), the National Dominican Beer Company, recently announced the delivery of more than 32,000 liters of 75 percent ethyl alcohol. 

Over on the island of Hispaniola, shared by both the Dominican Republic and Haiti, the rum companies are also doing their part.

Ron Barceló and Cervecería Nacional Dominicana (CND), the National Dominican Beer Company, recently announced the delivery of more than 32,000 liters of 75 percent ethyl alcohol. The alcohol was converted into sanitizer by another Dominican firm, Ardil Comercial, before being distributed in recycled 16 ounce bottles to patients and hospital workers at a dozen hospitals around the country.

Additionally, the companies also plan to donate an additional 100,000 hand sanitizers to businesses still operating during the Dominican Republic’s state of emergency. The country, which confirmed its first case of COVID-19 on Feb. 29, has so far registered 1,380 confirmed cases and 60 deaths.

Across the border in Haiti, where the country has recorded 18 confirmed cases and no deaths, the makers of Vieux Labbé are looking to begin mass production of a spray-based sanitizer in the coming weeks. Herbert Linge, vice president of Berling S.A., which produces the rum, said so far European and U.S. customers have maintained orders for the company’s aged dark rum. The company is looking to fill those orders, while also making hand sanitizers and help local producers of the traditional Haitian spirit known as kleren, which is made from distilled sugar cane.

“The idea is to buy the stock they are not able to sell with the current situation and then re-distill the alcohol from them to bring it,” to a higher percentage of alcohol in order to be able to use it for sanitizer, Linge said. “It’s a way to help the small producers stay in business; that’s the idea.”

To be effective in neutralizing the coronavirus, antiseptics must have at least a 70 percent concentration of alcohol. The small producers’ alcohol has a maximum of 55 percent, Linge said.

In Haiti where the directive of washing hands with soap and water to ward off the virus is easier said than done — considering that less than half of Haitians in rural area have access to water, according to the World Bank — hand sanitizers could be a lifesaving alternative.

But Linge, who is looking at both selling and donating the company’s stock of spray sanitizers once production gets rolling, admits that right now he doesn’t quite know what the current market demands are. He only knows that there is need.

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