Sake breweries across Japan have begun producing high-alcohol content liquids for use in place of the alcohol-based sanitizers that have become scarce during the COVID-19 crisis.
Kazuki Haruta, president of Kikisui Sake Co. based in Kochi Prefecture, said he arrived at the idea of producing a spirit with 77 percent alcohol content after considering how his company could contribute to combating the virus fight while making use of the large quantities of raw materials the brewery has on hand.
The firm has been flooded with over 10,000 orders and inquiries from across Japan about the product, which went on sale last Friday, following its announcement.
"I was surprised by how many inquiries we received from hospitals and medical staff as well," Haruta said, despite the product being aimed at general consumers.
The sudden interest in liquor with an extremely high percentage of alcohol as a replacement for sanitizer can be traced to a statement made by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in March, in which it indicated that even medical facilities could use beverages with an alcohol content of between 70 to 83 percent as sanitizers if left with no other choice.
On April 10, the health ministry further approved the use of high concentration alcoholic drinks as hand sanitizers due to dire shortages of the product in Japan.
Industrial-grade ethanol used in sanitizers comes from glucose, the same raw material which when fermented produces alcohol in brewed products like the top-quality Japanese spirit shochu.
Domestic companies import 90 percent alcohol made from raw materials such as sugarcane in Brazil, or corn from the United States, and distill it to 95 percent.
Manufacturers of sanitizers then purchase this alcohol and dilute it to 80 percent concentration to prevent it from evaporating. Moisturizing agents are also added when making hand sanitizers, according to industry sources.
Meirishurui Co., a brewery based in Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture, released a spirit with 65 percent alcohol content on April 6 following an inquiry from a regular customer about whether they could produce something similar to sanitizer.
Wakatsuru brewery in Toyama Prefecture has also started selling a product with 77 percent alcohol, while Okinawa's Seifuku Distillery Co. has commenced sales of re-distilled "awamori," a local rice-based spirit. Whisky makers are also moving to manufacture sanitizers from their domestically-produced products.
Although it may sound simple to dilute 95 percent alcohol with water, equipment in factories requires upgrades to do so as mass-produced liquor with an alcohol content of 70 percent or above is regarded as a dangerous substance under Japan's fire protection laws.
Subsequently, breweries have only been able to sell strong alcohol products after long negotiations with local governments.
Meanwhile, sanitizer manufacturers have also been working hard to ramp up production. Industry leader Kenei Pharmaceutical Co. in Osaka has been running its plants around the clock, while Kao Corp. has increased production twentyfold.
While the government intends to provide subsidies for companies to expand and improve equipment, overcoming the shortages still remains far on the horizon.
"I heard that a mixture containing fuel grade alcohol harmful to humans is being sold online for disinfecting," said Shigeharu Oie, a professor specializing in infection control and prevention at Sanyo-Onoda City University, Yamaguchi Prefecture. “Although sanitizers are optimal, using drinking alcohol is another way.”
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