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

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

(Miami Herald)

Sunday, April 05, 2020

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With hand sanitisers 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 novel 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 sanitisers and high-proof disinfectants to minimise 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 oz bottles of hand sanitisers for EC$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 sanitisers after seeing other gin companies in the United Kingdom make similar shifts as the pandemic threatened to put them out of business.

Blue Light Gin in Grenada is among several Caribbean distillers that are now making hand sanitisers in the fight against the coronavirus.

The global pandemic, which passed one million infections worldwide Thursday, has had a “99 per cent” 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 handcrafted gin made with wild Canadian juniper berries to aloe vera-infused hand sanitisers, Salyer said, was two-fold: One, they had access to the high-percentage alcohol needed to make antiseptics, and second, “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 sanitisers started flying off store shelves, said Kirk Seetahal of Grenada Distillers Limited, which produces Clark's Court Rum. “You couldn't find hand sanitiser 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 sanitiser spray before to cease operations Monday when a seven-day, 24-hour curfew went into effect.

Some of the sanitisers, Seetahal said, went to restock supermarkets and pharmacies' shelves, and sell for about EC$9 for a 25.3 oz 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 sanitiser, using Bacardi alcohol. Much of it was given away to police, nurses, non-profits and others on the front lines of the coronavirus.

Puerto Rico's Bacardi plant, which produces 80 per cent of the company's rum, is tweaking its production to pump out ethanol used to make hand sanitisers.

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 overproof Jamaican white rum and Appleton Estate brands, controls about 80 per cent of the spirits market on the island.

Allen said even before the dip in sales and Jamaica's 47 confirmed cases and three coronavirus-related deaths as of Thursday, J Wray & Nephew had already re-purposed 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 per cent ethyl alcohol, reverse osmosis water, and Xanthan gum — the company produced 100,000 litres of the high-strength alcohol and hand sanitiser 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.”

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 litres of 75 per cent ethyl alcohol. The alcohol was converted into sanitiser by another Dominican firm, Ardil Comercial, before being distributed in recycled 16 oz 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 sanitisers to businesses still operating during the Dominican Republic's state of emergency. The country, which confirmed its first case of COVID-19 on February 29, has so far registered 1, 380 cases and 60 deaths.

Across the border in Haiti, where the country has recorded 18 cases and no deaths, the makers of Vieux Labbé are looking to begin mass production of a spray-based sanitiser in the coming weeks. Herbert Linge, vice-president of Berling S, which produces the rum, said so far European and US customers have maintained orders for the company's aged dark rum. The company is looking to fill those orders, while also making hand sanitisers and helping 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 redistill the alcohol from them to bring it” to a higher percentage of alcohol in order to be able to use it for sanitiser, Linge said. “It's a way to help the small producers stay in business; that's the idea.”

To be effective in neutralising the coronavirus, antiseptics must have at least a 70 per cent concentration of alcohol. The small producers' alcohol has a maximum of 55 per cent, 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 sanitiser could be a life-saving alternative.

But Linge, who is looking at both selling and donating the company's stock of spray sanitisers 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.


Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.

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