Why Does Hand Sanitizer Smell Like Tequila Or Vodka? (Hint: It Shouldn't.)

Anna Rahmanan
·2-min read

Back in March, as COVID-19 swept the world and rendered hand sanitizer a daily necessity, hand-cleaning devotees took to social media to give voice to a commonly undiscussed aspect of the product ― its smell.

They’re still wondering. “Why does all the hand sanitizer smell like tequila now?” asked a Twitter user in September. “Tequila-scented hand sanitizer has got to be the first thing outlawed in 2021,” wrote another.

The aroma could be attributed to the spirit industry’s shift to producing hand sanitizer in the early days of the pandemic. Back in March, in an effort to bolster the surging demand for hand sanitizer, distilleries stepped up to make the product.

Take Philip McDaniel, CEO of Florida-based St. Augustine Distillery, who realized he could help confront a national crisis pretty early on.

“We were fighting a war against this thing and there was no hand sanitizer,” McDaniel recalled. “I started researching and realized we can make this stuff internally ― so we started doing it.”

To make any sort of liquor, spirit companies begin with distilled alcohol, which is ethanol. Ethanol also happens to be the primary ingredient in hand sanitizer, a fact that positioned the liquor industry to enter the disinfectant market.

Owner and distiller Brian Ferguson loads a batch of alcohol into a still while making hand sanitizer at the Flag Hill Distillery in Lee, New Hampshire, on May 8. The distillery, which usually produces whisky, rum and vodka, temporarily suspended normal operations to manufacture hand sanitizer. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Owner and distiller Brian Ferguson loads a batch of alcohol into a still while making hand sanitizer at the Flag Hill Distillery in Lee, New Hampshire, on May 8. The distillery, which usually produces whisky, rum and vodka, temporarily suspended normal operations to manufacture hand sanitizer. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

By definition, ethanol is an organic chemical compound that is colorless and, although boasting a characteristic odor, shouldn’t smell like any specific spirit. Which is to say that if your hand sanitizer smells like tequila, bourbon or vodka, it’s not because the products share ingredients. It’s because the company selling you the disinfectant may not be following proper production procedures.

But let’s start from the beginning.

How liquor brands got into the sanitizer business

McDaniel’s decision to shift to hand sanitizer production was typical of the spirit industry’s response to the pandemic. As companies like Purell faced an unprecedented surge in demand that depleted inventory,...

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