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White Tiger Distillery in Harford County switches from spirits to sanitizer to combat coronavirus

From left, Bel Air Police Officer L.F. Walsh, Bel Air Mayor Amy G. Chmielewski and Mike Pyon, the chief operating officer of White Tiger Distillery, show a box of spray sanitizer the distillery made using the alcohol it makes and is donating to the Bel Air Police Department during the coronavirus pandemic.
From left, Bel Air Police Officer L.F. Walsh, Bel Air Mayor Amy G. Chmielewski and Mike Pyon, the chief operating officer of White Tiger Distillery, show a box of spray sanitizer the distillery made using the alcohol it makes and is donating to the Bel Air Police Department during the coronavirus pandemic.(Amanda M. Jones)

A Harford County distillery has gone from making spirits to high-proof sanitizer to help local first responders, medical facilities, day cares and senior living centers respond to the novel coronavirus.

The White Tiger Distillery in Forest Hill has begun cranking out hand sanitizer made from its own alcohol and donations from other county producers, Chief Operating Officer Mike Pyon said. The process of getting the sanitizer to production began March 24, and the first batch ships out to Patient First in Aberdeen on Tuesday, where it will be distributed to other medical centers.

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White Tiger has also donated sanitizer to the Bel Air Police Department, among other community institutions, and is working to provide more to other first-response agencies in the county, the distillery’s owner Itsara Ounnarath said.

"We will continue to supply them free of charge,” he said. “It is our way of saying thank you to the community.”

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Spokeswoman for Bel Air Patti Parker said the town was thrilled that the distillery took steps to support its municipal workers.

“We are so grateful to White Tiger for responding to the needs of the community. It’s amazing to see businesses adjust in these uncertain times and support our law enforcement and public works personnel,” she wrote in an email.

The distillery was hit hard by the economic effects of the coronavirus, making much of its money through tastings, Ounnarath said. It was searching for a way to stay afloat when someone tossed out the idea of making hand sanitizer, Pyon said.

“We kinda rolled that idea around, and next thing I knew the mayor [of Bel Air, Amy Chmielewski] was at our door,” Pyon said. “We figured, you know what … we could really do something to impact this community."

So the rush began. Pyon set to work finding investors, who saw the urgency in producing hand sanitizer and "threw their money at [him] and said ‘we need to do this,’” Pyon said.

White Tiger Distillery in Forest Hill has shifted gears from making spirits to spray bottles of sanitizer during the coronavirus pandemic.
White Tiger Distillery in Forest Hill has shifted gears from making spirits to spray bottles of sanitizer during the coronavirus pandemic.(Amanda M. Jones)

The company had to use two-and-a-half barrels of its own whiskey to start the first batch of sprayable sanitizer. Each of those barrels, Pyon said, can cost about $3,000 to produce, on the lower end, and sell for even more, but the monetary concern was only part of the decision. Pyon also works as a lab manager for Aberdeen’s Patient First and knows the strain medical supply chains are under. He saw a niche to fill in producing hand sanitizer, which he said could become scarcer as the pandemic goes on.

The distillery employs others who work in the medical field and many veterans; they saw making hand sanitizer as a way to pay it forward to the community, he said.

“We are a business … but we do have compassion, and we do care,” Pyon said of the decision. “We are all part of your community … we have to show that.”

The process for making hand sanitizer from whiskey is not as complicated as it would seem, Pyon said. Under state and federal regulations, along with guidance from the World Health Organization, some distilleries have been given permission to make hand sanitizer as part of a push to increase production of medical supplies. Distilleries making hand sanitizer have to make sure their product is at least 80% alcohol per Food and Drug Administration guidelines, Pyon said, which the distillery is fully equipped for.

“Alcohol is alcohol," Pyon said. "When you distill any kind of mash with fermentation, you are going to get alcohol.”

The problem, Ounnarath said, is that the alcohol cannot be diluted down as it is in whiskey or other spirits. It needs to remain highly concentrated to make hand sanitizer, which can be made in about 10 minutes with high-proof alcohol and a couple of other ingredients, he said. That lowers the yield and turns an expensive barrel of alcohol that can take years to produce into something comparably cheap.

"With the hand sanitizer, you cannot dilute it down at all ... that is how we are losing profits,” Ounnarath said. “We are actually taking our good stuff we were hoping to sell.”

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The whiskey they used for the first batch was already double-distilled, and one more round of distillation brought it up to standard for use as disinfectant. The 80 gallons of whiskey yielded about 40 gallons of high-proof alcohol, Pyon said. He expected that would translate to 50 gallons of sanitizer.

The sanitizer White Tiger now produces is sprayable, making it ideal for police officers and medical workers who may need to disinfect steering wheels, seats and a variety of other objects as well as their own hands.

Other local organizations have stepped in to help as well, Pyon said, and White Tiger has given help other distillers, too. Harford Vineyard donating hundreds of gallons of wine to the distillery to use for sanitizer, and White Tiger donated one of its 1,000-gallon fermentation chambers to Twin Valley Distillers in Rockville to help them produce hand sanitizer.

“It was hard to part with it,” Pyon said, “but they needed it.”

The Maryland Department of Health has confirmed 1,413 cases of coronavirus in the state as of Monday, with the bulk of the infections occurring in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties. There are 24 confirmed cases in Harford County, according to the same data.

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