Distillers switch to making sanitiser as COVID-19 shatters drinks industry: S5E1

Australian rye whiskey company The Gospel Distillers is one of many distilleries that has adapted extremely quickly into producing sanitiser in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The virus has wreaked havoc on the drinks industry, and The Gospel co-founder Andrew Fitzgerald joins us for a chat about the impacts on his business.

We discuss how the Melbourne distillery got the sanitiser project off the ground in a matter of days, and Andrew’s concerns about the profiteering he believes is occurring with the supply of sanitiser to essential services providers.



Andrew also tells us a bit about The Gospel’s original reason for being, which is not sanitiser but whiskey, made using rye sourced from the renowned South Australian grain growing region of Murray Mallee.

Our thoughts are with the hospitality industry and all its suppliers as they navigate through these trying times.

Shout out to Matt and Pete at my old stomping ground, Radio Brews News. They’ve launched a new daily podcast show called The Antidote where each day they have different guests from the beer industry talking about some of the challenges they are facing due to the coronavirus.

Melbourne-based rye whiskey company, The Gospel Distillers

I joined Matt & Pete on The Antidote earlier this week, so you can hear that and other episodes by finding and subscribing to Radio Brews News wherever you listen to your podcasts.

A massive thank you to our partners Bintani and Fever-Tree for sticking by the show during this uncertain period. It literally would not happen without their support.

Help us fund Season Five of Drinks Adventures by purchasing your limited edition drink coasters here.

Follow James Atkinson on Facebook here, Instagram here and Twitter here.

Theme music ‘Sandbox’ by Rudists.

From rye whiskey to hand sanitiser: Andrew Fitzgerald of The Gospel Distillers (full transcript)

JAMES ATKINSON: Andrew, thanks for joining me on the show. Would it be fair to say this last few weeks would have been some of the most eventful since starting your businesses?

ANDREW FITZGERALD: Without a doubt, I mean, it’s not just ourselves in the production of spirits, it’s the wider community, the hospitality community and just seeing that being affected. That’s been pretty traumatic. And certainly our own business, we had projections, which we were sort of focused on. And over the last three, four weeks, I mean, we sort of just wiped the table clear of what we were planning to do and just focused on what we can do at this point.

ANDREW FITZGERALD: We’re certainly got our backs against the wall. I don’t have any major funder supporting us, you know, it’s mine and my business partner’s life savings that have started this business and continue to support the business. So to be honest, it’s a day by day hustle at this point. How can we draw in enough revenue to keep the lights on and keep our people employed? That’s our focus. And that’s how the next couple of months if not, you know, four, five, six months is going to look for us.

JAMES ATKINSON: You’re one of many craft distilleries that has quickly adapted to start producing hand sanitiser. How did that transpire?

ANDREW FITZGERALD: Initially, as far back as you know, three weeks ago, we talked about hand sanitiser here, because it was, at that stage, sort of rumours of some shortages. And then we pushed it to the side because some of the research that we’ve done and some of the high level cursory conversations that we’d had made it appear very challenging to meet regulations and requirements. And then, at the start of last week, we did more research contacted, you know, people like TGA and made sure we could do the right thing and from there just decided to get on and start working towards it. So the first thing was to look at the base spirit. We have the ability to produce sort of between five and 600 [inaudible] of pure spirit here on a single shift. We also looked at some of our waste spirit and some of our reject spirit.

ANDREW FITZGERALD: We’re sort of OCD in regards to trialling different wood types over the years, some of which we did not like the results, so they’re reject spirits. So we thought, ‘Well, look, we have this reject spirit, we have this ability to produce relatively high ABV spirit. So what we’ve done is we’re making our own high proof spirit, the first lot of that we needed to prove upward, supplementing with some neutral grain spirit and for the actual sanitiser, which is for public use, you know, not sold in bulk format that also has a blend of some of that reject whiskey, you know. When I say it’s reject spirit, some people probably would have bottled it and sold it, and charged it as a single cask release. But we just weren’t happy with it, so we thought, ‘let’s just bleed it through this sanitiser at a small rate’, and that’s what we’re doing.

JAMES ATKINSON: The TGA that Andrew refers to is the Therapeutic Goods Administration. The Gospel uses a substance called MEK (Methyl Ethyl Ketone) to denature its alcohol in order to make it unfit for human consumption.

ANDREW FITZGERALD: It gives it an odour that you don’t enjoy smelling; sort of an acetone-type odour, and it is slightly bittering in flavour. So it certainly makes it a non-enjoyable thing to consume. So basically, everything that we’ve done has been to the WHO guidelines and then we put an orange essence in there. And you know, I talked earlier about the sort of non-pleasant sort of acetone smell. Well, that’s really just to combat some of that, and I guess drawing down on the idea of an old fashioned, because if you’re gonna rub it on your hands, you don’t necessarily want to smell like a chemist shop.

JAMES ATKINSON: You’ve been very clear that this is not a commercial venture for The Gospel. Why did you feel the need to state that so explicitly?

ANDREW FITZGERALD: Well, I guess there’s two things. One, we’re not we’re not profiteering from this situation that that our community is finding itself in and that’s one thing that we want to make absolutely clear. We’re essentially producing two different SKUs under sanitiser. One is in a bulk format, which we’re issuing out to essential services like government agencies and things like that, which surprisingly, could not get it. And you know, we saw price gouging happening where people were charging sort of $25 a litre or $30 a litre and we said, ‘well, that’s not cool’. We’ve gone in substantially less; we’re $10 a litre that we’re supplying to those folks. And then we basically have got the second SKU which is in little hundred ml bottles. They are selling at a margin, but the entire margin is being put into a fund, which will channel back through to hospitality staff that have been affected by this breakdown of the industry.

JAMES ATKINSON: Because you were quite outspoken on social media about some unscrupulous people out there, in your words, “profiting off of this terrible situation our community finds itself in”.

ANDREW FITZGERALD: To be clear, I don’t have any disagreements with anyone in the community, the distillery manufacturing and craft industry. It’s moreso there were resellers profiteering at a great amount hearing of hospitals getting their sanitiser being stolen and resold… not to swear, but that shit is just crazy, right? That’s offensive to who we should be as humans. But those people that are doing it just to keep their direct employees employed; more power to them and I celebrate that. That’s what they should be doing. And that’s why I’ve been very clear that when I say, you know, all profits are going to the hospital fund, it is all profits after I’ve paid for my staff. So it is basically cost of goods, cost of labor. The key there is I’m, I’m paying for that person to be doing that. And it means I get to keep them which is exactly what I want.

JAMES ATKINSON: It seems like this has happened at a pivotal time for The Gospel as you’ve just launched your first rye whiskey in the last few weeks?

ANDREW FITZGERALD: Yeah, it’s a perfect storm in regards to, you know, timing and where we were as a business. We’d kind of for a while and neglected Melbourne Moonshine because we were gearing up to focus on the launch of The Gospel. And that was just sort of starting to pick up and this event happened. So it couldn’t have been worse timing for us. But I’m confident that if we continue to look out for each other and and try and stay positive, at the other end of this we’ll be in the market, and in force, you know?

The Gospel Distillers Straight Rye Whiskey

JAMES ATKINSON: Why did you decide to focus on rye whiskey?

ANDREW FITZGERALD: Well, look, first of all, thank you for asking me about my real passion project, which is rye whiskey. Going back sort of three and a half odd years ago, Ben and I, we went across to the US and spent a lot of time just looking at what was happening in trade; bars, distilleries and all those sorts of things. We drank a lot of whiskey and rye we really saw obviously, that was the beginning of its uptick in market consumption. And we thought, well, that’s interesting and rye is actually my whiskey of choice. I have rye old fashioneds and rye manhattans and that sort of thing. So that’s my sort of go to.

ANDREW FITZGERALD: So we came back, we thought about it and we were like, Okay, well, if we’re gonna do a whiskey, let’s do rye. But anyone that’s made rye, will attest to, it’s an absolute bugger to mash and to get a decent ferment through. So we had to refit our distillery that we had at the time, the South Melbourne distillery. And we did that and started producing rye there. And really enjoyed how it was coming out and were excited by it, so we sort of looked at a way to build a bigger distillery and did that by partnering with somebody else. Basically, we produce on behalf of them, they sort of funnel some money through for contract booze, and that’s how we got got to the point of having this bigger distillery and being able to produce our products.

JAMES ATKINSON: Tell me about the two rye products in The Gospel’s range?

ANDREW FITZGERALD: We’ve got the Solera Rye, which is 100 per cent unmalted rye… both are 100 per cent unmalted ryes. We don’t use any malt in either one of our main SKUs. The solera, however, is a blend of multiple batches going through a solera system, which is you know, first fill American oak, second and third fill American oak and finished in natural wine barrels, which we get out of the Adelaide Hills. That’s why with that particular SKU, we omit the reference to any such word as ‘whiskey’ on it, because I can’t guarantee the what comes out of it is of two years of age, but certainly the oldest stock in there is over two years.

ANDREW FITZGERALD: And then the other one is a straight rye. It’s as American as we could produce a rye, as American-influenced. The grain which we source from the Murray Mallee is a very particular grain in the fact that it’s of quite a small grain. They get very little rain out there, so it’s compact in flavour. We source from that one farm, and then we run it through a continuous column still, which we built ourselves and then it’s finished in a pot and then it’s aged in 24 month old, seasoned barrels for about an average of two and a half years. The solera rye is quite bold in its flavour. It has that impact from that natural wine, it has a lot of oak contact through the solera system. I think it’s great for mixing, I think it’s a really good whiskey is a base to some of those cocktails I talked about earlier. But the straight whiskey in particular is toying with the concept of not punching you in the face with polarising flavours. I think it’s quite a delicate flavour profile. And that’s had exceptional feedback, so we’re quite happy with that.

JAMES ATKINSON: Well Andrew thanks for joining me at what is undoubtedly a difficult time for The Gospel. I hope this blows over as soon as possible and you can get back to focusing on making whiskey.

ANDREW FITZGERALD: So do I mate! No problem. Cheers. Bye bye.

Author: James Atkinson

Journalist specialising in the food, drink, travel and hospitality arenas. Australian International Beer Awards 2017 Media Award Winner and Certified Cicerone®.

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