Local resident Riley Maples hands out 1-liter bottles of hand sanitizer right outside Pursuit Distillery. When its “doors” opened at 10 a.m. last Wednesday, the line of cars already stretched back to Battersby Avenue. Photo by Ray Miller-Still

Local resident Riley Maples hands out 1-liter bottles of hand sanitizer right outside Pursuit Distillery. When its “doors” opened at 10 a.m. last Wednesday, the line of cars already stretched back to Battersby Avenue. Photo by Ray Miller-Still

Local distillery switches gears, selling hand sanitizer

After Pursuit Distillery fills its orders of denatured alcohol and hand sanitizer, it opens its doors to the public.

It was a scene you may normally expect from the release of a long-awaited video game or before the concert doors open.

But the line of cars that stretched from Pursuit Distillery to the Enumclaw post office was only there for one thing — hand sanitizer.

Well, maybe two things, since you got a discount on the sanitizer if you bought a bottle of alcohol to go with it.

Regardless, two of Pursuit’s owners were blown away at the support their local community was showing them, and felt blessed that they were in a position to be able to give their community something they really need during the reign of COVID-19.

“We can’t say ‘thank you’ enough to the community of Enumclaw. I didn’t grow up here, but my wife and I and my kids have been here for 12 years now, and we love this place. It’s our home now,” said Tyler Teeple, who is in charge of operations. “It’s definitely fulfilling to fulfill an need like this for the place that you live.”

Like every business across the state, Pursuit — which only just opened on the Plateau in February 2018 — had to quickly decide how it was going to respond to the novel coronavirus; obviously, their tasting room had to close, but what about the still?

To hear Executive Officer Sam Agnew tell it, the distillery was ready to make some tough decisions regarding staffing and pay, but their “team members,” as he calls them, rallied behind the idea of shifting gears to start producing denaturalized alcohol, one of the main components of hand sanitizer.

“I want to give a lot of love to our team members,” Agnew said in an April 2 interview. “These last two weeks have been an absolute rollercoaster, and we’re doing some pretty unique things right now.”

Their very first order of denaturalized alcohol, 28 gallons of it, went to the Valley Medical Center in Maple Valley, which was able to turn it all into hand sanitizer, since the medical center has an interior lab for such work.

And since then, their new product has gone all around Washington, with a lot of it — upwards of 450 gallons since Friday, April 3 — actually going to the state, especially the state Department of Agriculture; some other dozens of gallons have also been sent to the UW Medical Center in Seattle and the Enumclaw Fire Department.

One of the reasons Pursuit has been able to make and distribute denaturalized alcohol so fast is because their alcohol distributer, Columbia Distributing, had thousands upon thousands of kegs of beer that were soon going to pass their sell-by date, given that restaurants and bars around the state were ordered closed by Gov. Jay Inslee.

“We’re buying the kegs from them, really for pennies on the dollar, we’re distilling the beer to create high-proof alcohol,” Agnew said.

“It’s less time consuming, in essence, because we don’t have to wait and mash and ferment it,” Teeple continued. “We can immediately dump this and start distilling in the same day.”

Of course, most of the public have little use for denatured spirits, as they can’t be drunk and are mainly used either as a solvent or a cleaner, though not a disinfectant.

But combined with aloe vera gel or another like ingredient, denatured alcohol becomes hand sanitizer — something that quickly flew off the shelves of convenience stores at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Pursuit made their first batch of hand sanitizer at the end of March, and announced they’d sell it to the public on April 1.

The results spoke for themselves.

“We had about 300-plus bottles available to the public yesterday (April 1) and probably sold through about 250 of those,” Teeple said. “Because of this, we’ve been able to keep the doors open and the lights on and pay people and keep people working and provide a product to not just Enumclaw, but the greater Puget Sound area. We feel very, very blessed to be a part of that in this way. Quite frankly, it’s the least we can do.”

But while Pursuit’s business model shift may seem like it went off without a hitch, its owners continue to scramble for the one ingredient that makes this all work — isopropyl alcohol.

It is possible, though maybe not recommended, to use any high-proof alcohol to make hand sanitizer. However, if Pursuit doesn’t denature their alcohol with isopropyl alcohol, the final product would be subject to the U.S.’s alcohol excise tax, Agnew said, which is something he and his team want to avoid.

The only problem is that isopropyl alcohol is in high demand and hard to locate.

“Every distillery that is making hand sanitizer in Washington state needs it,” Agnew said. “We’re getting emails from our Guild saying, ‘Does anyone have this? We’re running out of it.’”

Unfortunately, Pursuit can’t realistically take donations of isopropyl alcohol — they’re in need of 10 or 15-gallon drums of the stuff, he continued.

But as long as they can get it, Pursuit will continue to do the best it can for Enumclaw.

“Unfortunately, as big of a machine that we have, as big of a still that we have that can make a lot of alcohol comparatively to a lot of distilleries, we still can’t make it fast enough,” Teeple said. “I’m telling more people ‘no’ than ‘yes’ at this point — or at least saying, ‘I can’t this minute. The demand is too great.’”

THE NEXT BIG SALE

With Pursuit prioritizing making denatured alcohol for the state and isopropyl alcohol being a scarce commodity, it’s not always known far ahead of time when the distillery is able to sell some of what they’ve made to the public.

“It’s a tough balancing act, trying to supply the front lines and still handle the first responders in your own community and the public,” Teeple said. “We hope people are understanding that we’re being pulled in a lot of different directions and meet the demand on multiple different fronts.”

The last planned public sale event is, April 14, although like at the beginning of the month, some product may be leftover from the initial sale date, and Pursuit’s “doors” may open again tomorrow, April 15, to sell the rest.

Each liter of sanitizer costs $15, or $10 if you also buy a bottle of alcohol. Only one bottle of sanitizer will be sold per person, and only credit cards are accepted.

Finally, it’s first come, first serve — which means you may have to line up along Cole Street long before sales begin around 10 a.m.

For more information on the next possible sale of sanitizer, make sure to check out Pursuit’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/pursuitdistilling/.


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