by Pat Rediger

Shortly after the pandemic arrived in Canada, news began to spread about the number of distillers that were retooling their operations to produce hand sanitizer. Saskatchewan companies such as LB Distillers, Smooth 42 Craft Distilling, and Great Gido’s Homebrew were all changing their production lines to produce hand sanitizer to meet growing demand. And this was being played out by other companies across the country and beyond.

A key ingredient in hand sanitizers is pharmaceutical grade alcohol and there are only two facilities in Canada that produce this product. One of them is located near Unity, Saskatchewan, at nwPURE™, a subsidiary of the North West Terminal (NWT).

“It’s kind of a remarkable story because we’re essentially selling alcohol from coast-to-coast, and we’re producing it from locally produced wheat,” said NWT CEO Jason Skinner. “Who would have thought that Saskatchewan would be supplying a big part of the alcohol that is going into hand sanitizer across Canada in the battle against COVID-19?”

NWT was incorporated as a shareholder-owned inland terminal in 1993 and began operations in 1996. It created North West Bio-Energy Ltd. in 2005 to produce fuel alcohol but over time it added different grades of alcohol to its product mix including industrial alcohol that is used in a variety of products including windshield wiper fluid and fortified wines. Each year this facility can produce up to 25 million litres of alcohol and 25,000 metric litres of dried distillers grains with solubles (DDGS), a high quality animal feed. NWT rebranded North West Bio-Energy Ltd. into nwPURE™ this year to better reflect its range of products. 

Since nwPURE™ already had existing relationships in the distilling sector, it made sense that many of these companies would contact nwPURE™ to create the alcohol required for hand sanitizers when they retooled their operations. It wasn’t long before companies that hadn’t previously worked with nwPURE™ began sourcing them to provide this key ingredient.

“We’ve become considerably busier from the requests for alcohol from all the companies that are producing hand sanitizer,” explained Skinner. “We’ve been going flat out to meet the demand from companies that have switched over to making hand sanitizer. Even in Saskatchewan there have been many companies that have made the switch.”

Skinner said that it was a relatively seamless transition for the company to make the alcohol for hand sanitizer as there wasn’t any new equipment or processes to incorporate. nwPURE™ produces a pharmaceutical grade called USP that is required in a formula published by the World Health Organization (WHO) as well as a formula that was approved by Health Canada.

Currently, about 90 per cent of the company’s alcohol production is being used for hand sanitizer, which is about 2 million litres per month. Previous to COVID-19, Skinner estimated that only about 1% of the company’s sales were used in hand sanitizer products.

Most of the alcohol they have been selling has been through bulk sales that are shipped by rail tanker truck or in drums. The companies then use this alcohol as a key ingredient in producing their own hand sanitizer that you would find at the retail level. Although there is demand around the world for this type of product – and the company ships to areas such as the United States, Africa and Oceania – there is so much demand from Canadian companies that much of alcohol is staying in the country.

A small portion of the production is going to traditional American customers that have also pivoted to create hand sanitizer products.  nwPURE™ also provided some volumes to the Saskatchewan government for use with Canadian embassies in the States.

“Our plant has been operating 24/7 so it’s been a blur here,” said Skinner. “Despite the pandemic, we have been able to keep our staff going. Obviously we’ve implemented measures early on to ensure the health and safety of our staff, with the biggest being physical distancing between staff, but everything has been good so far.”

Although many companies have been forced to reduce staff or decrease hours during the pandemic, Skinner said the company has actually hired a few extra people to meet the demand from nwPURE™. This is in addition to steady demand for grain from NWT.

“Our grain business has remained steady because at the end of the day people still need to eat,” said Skinner. “People were hoarding at the beginning of the pandemic and we had challenges with access to rail lines last winter so it has increased demand for grain. We were having to catch up even before COVID-19 arrived. Obviously people need food so the grain business can’t stop.”

When the pandemic ends, Skinner expects that there will be a reduction in demand for alcohol for hand sanitizer, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that things will slow down for the company. He said the company has made many new business relationships and he expects these relationships will continue as these companies source various alcohol products in the future.

“We can produce many different grades of alcohol from potable alcohol to pharmaceutical grade,” said Skinner. “We have a wide range of alcohols that we can produce, but we haven’t really promoted ourselves to the public because we are a wholesaler. We sell the ingredients that other people market. That said, we do have a website and people have managed to find us during this COVID crisis.”