Back in March, Ian Hunter, co-founder of Deacon Giles Distillery in Salem, Massachusetts, started getting dozens of requests for a product he had never made before. Hand sanitizer was suddenly desperately needed by everyone from first-responders to emergency daycare centers, and Hunter was uniquely qualified to provide it.
“We were getting phone calls more than hourly,” Hunter recalls. “People were looking for thousands of gallons.”
Everyone was turning to Deacon Giles because the most important ingredient in hand sanitizer—ethanol—was in short supply. And the company’s stills could produce it just as easily as their usual output: craft spirits.
Although Hunter and his partner Jesse Brenneman were eager to help, it became clear that the need far outstripped the capacity of the distillery. “Given the size of our still and the capacity of our fermenters, it was going to be really challenging,” Hunter says. “The requests overwhelmed the materials we had on hand, and we simply don't have the capacity to ferment enough ethanol on our own.”
At the same time, area breweries were suddenly stuck with far more fermented product than they needed. Brenneman was commiserating with a friend who works at Harpoon Brewery, when they realized that the expiring beer that was no longer destined for area restaurants could be refined into the high-proof ethanol needed to make hand sanitizer. Meaning that Deacon Giles could skip fermenting and go directly to distilling.
“It relieves the pressure on us,” Hunter says. “It allows us to primarily ferment our own products and utilize the capacity of our still while that is happening.”
The connection with Harpoon wasn’t mere happenstance—Brenneman and Hunter met while working at the brewery. Brenneman was cellar master and Hunter worked in finance, and over a few beers they realized a shared desire to break out on their own, paving the way for Deacon Giles. “We joke that we're like a mullet,” Hunter says with a laugh. “I'm the business in the front and [Brenneman is] the party in the back.”
The sanitizer has a slight aroma of beer and cider and wine.”
The pair originally envisioned using their complementary skill sets to start a brewery, but a different path presented itself while researching ways to connect the business to the rich history of Salem. Hunter was immediately drawn to the tale of Deacon Giles, a temperance tract written in Salem in the 1830s about an irreverent rum-making minister who accidentally hires a gang of demons to operate his distillery.
“The story drove everything,” Hunter says, explaining that the fable got them thinking about how many craft breweries were already out there and how few distilleries. “It was the force behind switching our mentality and trying our hands at distilling instead of instead of brewing.”
The narrative still drives everything they craft. “If we're going to produce a spirit, there's going to be a story behind it,” Hunter says. For example, their molasses-based Friendship’s Bounty Spiced Rum is named after a tall ship anchored in Salem, and it pays homage to the spice trading history of New England by using flavors, like cacao nibs, Seville orange peel, Tahitian vanilla, and long pepper, that would have been cargo in the 1800s. Deacon Giles’ Original Gin, made from a malt mash of rye and barley, is steeped with local rose hips, giving it a unique floral note.
Now Deacon Giles is producing hand sanitizer with a unique local twist. Seven breweries and wineries, including Far From The Tree Cider, Ipswich Ale Brewery, and 1634 Meadery, quickly joined Harpoon in donating excess product, providing the distillery with about 4,000 gallons of beer, cider, wine, and mead thus far. “It's a wild combination,” Hunter says. “The sanitizer has a slight aroma of beer and cider and wine.”
Depending upon the alcohol content at the start, 100 gallons of beer produces about four-and-a-half or five gallons of WHO-sanctioned hand sanitizer, using alcohol distilled to 80% mixed with glycerin and hydrogen peroxide. “If you have a higher alcohol concentration in the beer or wine, you're going to get better yield,” Hunter explains.
Working around the company’s production schedule for spirits, they’ve been able to produce between 50 and 100 gallons of sanitizer a week. “It's been a lot of adjusting schedules and doing some juggling, trying to double shift where we can,” Hunter says. “If we can get two distillations done during the day, instead of one, obviously that helps.”
Thus far, they have bottled almost 500 gallons of sanitizer, supporting nonprofits like the Boston YMCAs, which are providing emergency childcare centers for essential workers, and the Boston Resiliency Fund, a city of Boston program that coordinates delivering donations where they are needed most.
Deacon Giles is charging a sliding scale of $12 to $15 per half gallon of sanitizer, based on whether it is going to a nonprofit or to the general public. “We made the decision to really just cover our costs,” Hunter says. “We're trying to keep some people employed and keep our utilities paid and our lights on. I know we could charge a lot more, but that doesn't that doesn't jibe with our philosophy.”
Between the sanitizer, curbside sales of spirits and canned cocktails, and some cocktail kits, Deacon Giles is making ends meet, but it’s not easy.
“It's been a long three years the last couple of months,” Hunter says with a wry laugh. “It's not the plan we had when we opened a distillery five years ago, but it's the plan that we have now. Without restaurants open, that's hurting us and it's going to be a long time before we see that revenue come back. So trying to figure out other ways to keep things moving until that point is the daily goal.”