Salem’s Divine Distillers joins craft spirit producers making free hand sanitizer

Jason Greenwood, head distiller and owner of Divine Distillers, pours homemade hand sanitizer into a jar to give out on March 19, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

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Grocery stores and big box retailers across Salem are sold out of hand sanitizer, but there’s one warehouse in south Salem where people can still get supplied – for free.

Jason Greenwood, co-owner and head distiller of Divine Distillers, is passing out free 90% alcohol hand sanitizer to anyone who asks daily from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the distillery’s new location at Southeast 25th Street and Southeast McGilchrist Street.

He’s joined the ranks of craft distillers across the U.S. making hand sanitizer to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

“It’s the same process as making alcohol,” he said.

Word of mouth has kept him busy, he said, with a near-constant stream of people after 11 a.m.

On Thursday, March 19, a few people trickled in before the official opening time.

Nancy McKenzie, 63, brought two Mason jars for Greenwood to fill. She said she’s well supplied for other types of emergencies at home with food and batteries, but didn’t think to stock hand sanitizer.

“I’ve been to numerous stores and nobody has it,” she said.

For now, Greenwood is using the “heads” from his regular distilling process – the first bits of alcohol to come off the still, which contain more volatile compounds like methanol. 

Under federal law, that product can’t be used or sold. But a growing number of distilleries in recent weeks have flouted the law by turning it into hand sanitizer.

Greenwood said it was too important a job to wait for government regulators to get on board. The attitude among distillers, he said, was “doing it anyway and saying, ‘Come after us.’”

On Wednesday, the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau gave distilleries the go-ahead to continue.

Jason Greenwood, right, owner of Divine Distillers, fills a jar of hand sanitizer for Nancy McKenzie on March 19, 2020 (Rachel Alexander)

Greenwood said if needed, he’ll keep making hand sanitizer from alcohol that could be used to produce spirits. If he shifts his production toward only sanitizer, he can make about 50 gallons a day. For now, he has 30 to 40 gallons on hand.

“We are not going to run out,” he said.

The distillery has so far been mostly unaffected by the event cancellations and business closures hurting many local restaurants, bars and breweries. They’re scheduled to open a new tasting room in mid-April, Greenwood said.

The Divine Distillers hand sanitizer is a liquid that can be sprayed or spread on hands and surfaces. It’s denatured alcohol, Greenwood said, meaning a small amount of hydrogen peroxide is added, and shouldn’t be consumed because of the peroxide and likely presence of methanol and other harmful alcohols.

The current batch smells a little sweet, like brandy.

He’s handing it out in plastic bottles he’s scraped together from local stores, but he always needs more, he said. People can also bring their own containers.

Greenwood isn’t asking for money. His goal is to help the Salem community survive a difficult period.

“I’d rather us all get through this,” he said.

But he is asking those who can to donate to organizations impacted by the cancellation of events and public gatherings in recent weeks, spending what hand sanitizer would have cost at the store on local arts. 

His favorite is the Eugene Opera, which had to cancel performances of “Tosca” last week.

He’s also urging support for local theaters and museums, like the Elsinore and Gilbert House Children’s Museum, as well as animal shelters.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander at [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.