Trailhead Spirits in Billings switches to making hand sanitizer

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Trailhead sanitizer

Distiller Joe Henan adjusts the bottling machinery at Trailhead Spirits for bottles of hand sanitizer made in the distillery Thursday.

It’s a surprisingly short jump between vodka and hand sanitizer. 

Trailhead Spirits, the Billings-based distillery, decided earlier this month to join the ranks of distilleries nationwide helping to fill the hand sanitizer shortage caused by the spread of COVID-19 across the country. 

“We can do something,” said Casey McGowan, owner of Trailhead. 

Trailhead sanitizer

Casey McGowan of Trailhead Spirits looks at a bottle of hand sanitizer made in his distillery Thursday.

The process begins with the pure distilled ethyl alcohol used to make vodka or gin, known in the industry as neutral spirits. It’s roughly 90% alcohol, basically Everclear, McGowan said.

Trailhead distills its own neutral spirits and had 350 liters of it in storage when the hand sanitizer shortage happened, he said. Typically, Trailhead would dilute its neutral spirits to make its brand of vodka, or dilute it down and add natural botanical elements to make its gin.

Instead, Trailhead decided to use its reserves to fight a virus. On March 20 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration waived its hand sanitizer formula registration process and gave the World Health Organization’s formula to distilleries that wanted to make the cleaner. 

“The process is more mathematical than anything,” McGowan said. 

Trailhead sanitizer

Trailhead Spirits is bottling hand sanitizer made in the distillery Thursday.

Hand sanitizer is basically a ratio of at least 66% alcohol with hydrogen peroxide and glycerin. The alcohol and hydrogen peroxide do the germ killing; the glycerin makes the compound gel-like and easier to apply. 

The challenge for Trailhead became finding suppliers for the hydrogen peroxide and glycerin, and then finding containers in which the distillery could put it. It was able to find 300, 8-ounce bottles locally. It then ordered an additional shipment of 8- and 16-ounce bottles from outside the state. 

The only piece they couldn’t find was hand-pump or flip-top lids; all the bottles will have screw tops, McGowan said.

Trailhead sanitizer

Trailhead Spirits is bottling hand sanitizer made in the distillery Thursday.

“It’s not ideal,” he said, “but it gets the job done.”

In all, Trailhead was able to make 65 gallons of hand sanitizer this week. McGowan figured it’ll take the distillery four weeks to gather all the supplies and make the next batch, which will probably be 60 to 65 gallons. 

And it’s all spoken for. Trailhead has fielded calls from health care groups and government agencies from across the country with orders. They’d take more if he had it. 

“I don’t know if we can keep up with demand,” he said. “It’s kind of overwhelming. We’re doing our best.”

Spencer Zaugg is an inventor, and he wants to get back to work. That’s a good combo.


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