Those looking to enjoy a drink of sugar beet vodka will have to wait, as Tyler Seim, owner of Red Pine Distillery in Grand Forks, is making the switch to hand sanitizer in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
Seim has put his nearly 2-year-old vodka-making business on hold to make sanitizer, a product that has been nearly impossible to find in recent weeks. He told the Herald he has the necessary chemical supplies to make about 700 gallons at his distillery, 4051 Gateway Drive. He is teaming up with the Red River Biorefinery to get a bulk supply of nearly pure ethanol, and he said he wants to begin making and bottling the product soon.
“I'm hoping that once (lab tests) come back and show that they're good, we'll be able to jump in and get going full bore,” Seim said.
The lab testing is necessary to satisfy safety guidelines, according to Keshav Rajpal, one of the principals of Wisconsin-based BioMass Solution, the company that owns the biorefinery.
“There are certain specifications to make sure that you have a clean product in the system,” Rajpal said. “You want to make sure that you don’t have anything in there that might be detrimental at any level to somebody using it for hand use.”
The Red River Biorefinery lies to the north of Simplot and manufactures ethanol from agricultural waste, potato tillings mostly. It was a location chosen by design, as Simplot is one of the facility’s major suppliers of raw material. The ethanol was meant to be used as a biofuel or additive to gasoline in out-of-state markets, such as California.
The ethanol plant has an ample supply of product on hand, 100,000 gallons of nearly pure ethanol. What it doesn't have is a bottling facility -- something that Seim’s business is capable of, as he bottles his vodka on-site, in 750-milliliter bottles. He said hand sanitizer bottles are hard to come by right now, but he managed to secure a supply of 7,000.
“They’re various sizes,” Seim said. “We have some smaller ones for individual use, then we have some larger ones for assisted living facilities. Then we have some one-gallon jugs to refill existing containers.”
Gov. Doug Burgum has urged people to save their sanitizer containers, noting their scarcity, and has implied that some people are hoarding the product.
“We know the shelves have been bare (of hand sanitizer) and some people have a multi-year supply at home," said Burgum on Tuesday, March 31.
Seim plans to sell some of the sanitizer to the public for a donation -- people pay what they want -- to cover the cost of making it. A small bottle for individual use should run about $1 or $2, while the one-gallon jugs cost about $35. He is also working out how to allow people to stop by the distillery and refill their bottles.
He won’t sell it all. In fact, he intends to give it away to places that need it the most.
“The majority of it I will be donating to places like Altru and nursing homes, and then make it available to the public,” Seim said.
Distribution still needs to be worked out, and Seim has floated the idea of making it available at restaurants in Greater Grand Forks.
“Right now, the only places I have discussed it with is Half Brothers Brewery and then the Spud Jr. in East Grand Forks,” Seim said. “Being they're both still doing pickup orders, they could have it available if somebody wanted to stop and have it brought out to them or picked up.”
Contact Seim at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rajpal at the biorefinery, told the Herald the Red Pine Distillery is only one of the businesses he is looking to team up with. Due to the volume of product he has on hand, he is searching for partners that can help distribute in bulk.
“Anything, anything going to help get rid of all this noise around COVID-19 would be great,” Rajpal said.
Maybe then Seim can get back to making vodka.