Makers of the potent Chinese liquor baijiu are jumping into the fight against the Covid-19 coronavirus by turning their distilleries into sanitizer production facilities.
Hand sanitizers have become a scarce commodity as the virus spreads around the world. To respond to the shortage, several baijiu companies in China have switched to producing sanitizer.
Baijiu is a distilled liquor known for its high alcohol content, usually around 40% but sometimes as high as 65%. Because of its strong flavor, it is often paired with intense dishes such as spicy hot pot.
One distiller, Guomei, began producing sanitizer since the outbreak started in China at the end of January. The company has been making baijiu since 1927.
Before the coronavirus outbreak, Guomei produced an average 20,000 tons of baijiu every year with a staff of around 2,000 people.
After the outbreak started, the company allocated 30% of its staff to producing sanitizers and hired an additional 800 people and six production lines to meet demand.
“Each person is now pumping out 2,000 bottles of hand sanitizer every day,” says Xue Yufeng, a production line leader at Guomei. “And this amount is going to increase.”
Baijiu makers have been able to quickly convert their lines because they have ready access to alcohol.
Guomei extracts alcohol from tapioca, which it sources from Thailand, according to Dong Kaisheng, a production manager at the factory.
Instead of diluting the alcohol to 40%, which is the amount for baijiu, the factory now dilutes to 75%, an amount suitable for sanitizer.
“Since the outbreak, demand for baijiu has gone down,” Dong says, owing to fewer people visiting restaurants and bars, “so we have enough materials and technical support to produce hand sanitizer."
Although baijiu is the best-selling liquor in the world—owing to China’s large population—it still remains unknown in most of the world. In the United States, it makes up less than 1% distilled spirits sold.
While low grades of baijiu can be inexpensive, higher grades, which are often aged for many years, can command much higher prices.
“Chinese people are very particular about brands when it comes to baijiu,” says Ouyang Qianli, an analyst of China’s liquor industry. “Some smaller, lesser-known brands are really struggling these days, so they are seeking a break-through with other alcohol-related products.”
Guomei hopes to continue sanitizer production after the coronavirus outbreak.
“This is a good opportunity for us to transition,” Dong says. “We are able to test out the market in the quickest way.”
(Read more: How restaurants are adapting to the coronavirus age)
Liquor companies in other countries have also responded to the coronavirus outbreak by converting their lines for sanitizer production.
Tito’s announced on Sunday that it was testing its lines for sanitizer production after warning drinkers that its actual vodka wasn’t strong enough to kill germs.
This followed a similar announcement from Pernod Ricard, the producer of Absolut Vodka Jameson Irish Whiskey.
In Korea, makers of soju have shared their alcohol stock with sanitizer producers.