Current Issue #488

Beer and Other Sins:
Fire, gin and germ warfare on Kangaroo Island

Beer and Other Sins by Royce Kurmelovs

As COVID-19 hit South Australia, Kangaroo Island’s KI Spirits became one of many local distilleries unexpectedly pivoting from high-quality gin to hygiene.

“You want to talk about hand sanitiser?” Jon Lark says. “Let me tell you about hand sanitiser. At one point there, it took over our lives in a very unpleasant way.”

Jon is the gin king of Kangaroo Island, the 58-year-old proprietor of KI Spirits. Back in 2002 he and his wife, Sarah, opened the dedicated gin distillery in their shed, making it the first of its kind in the country.

Since then, the couple have racked up awards and become famous in their own rights, operating from their base 10 minutes outside Kingscote down the Playford Highway.

But when the pandemic hit and the tourists stopped coming, the couple found themselves taking a detour, shifting from making premium-grade spirits to medical grade chemicals.

“Hand sanitiser was seen as the saviour of all our businesses,” Jon says. “I could see early on how it was going to go.”

How it happened requires going back six months to Christmas when hot weather generated early thunderstorms. With no rain in such a long time, everything caught alight. The flames pooled together and swept across the island in three waves.

After the firestorm came the virological storm. If the Larks survived the bushfires unscathed, the pandemic proved a catastrophe when the borders snapped shut.

At first, it all seemed like bad news for the boutique liquor business, which depended on tastings. No more visitors meant fewer sales.

Around that time, in the early stages of the pandemic before any federal government support had come, the couple began to investigate the manufacture of hand sanitiser as a way to make money.

The ethanol-based hand-rub had become a high-demand product in the opening weeks of the pandemic. As those with little trust in governments rushed to stockpile, the stuff sold out everywhere.

Across the world, perfumers and distilleries spied opportunity. The World Health Organisation had published a how-to guide for making hand-sanitiser on a stove-top in 2010 which was rediscovered with the pandemic.

Following the guide, the Larks saw a way to help out others while turning a couple of thousand litres of waste alcohol from the distillation process into something useful. Otherwise it would have to be shipped to the mainland for reprocessing at great expense.

“That first batch we just gave to people. We gave it to the school. We gave it to the police. To the hardware shop. To the hospital and medical services – anyone who needed it,” Jon says.

“And then everyone else started making it too.”

Overnight a cottage industry sprung up, turning waste ethanol and old liquor into hand sanitiser of varying quality. Wineries used rancid port, while fruit juice companies looked to corner the market by repurposing their industrial stills.

“We got out of the hand sanitiser business pretty quickly. I never wanted to make sanitiser for a living. I just want to get back to making amazing gin.”

At one point, the shortage was real and the government called to ask for their help.

“We got a call from someone – it was almost like a spy novel,” Jon says. “Someone in the Department of Defence from the Innovation and Capability program spoke to us and said a particular distillery was donating pure ethanol to the government and we were one of three operations chosen.”

If the government was making 17,000 litres of pure alcohol available to make sanitiser, the Larks said they’d take 2000 litres and go back to making gin as soon as they could. What they processed they sold to Benson Radiology and the Australian Dental Foundation. Jon rang up Ronald McDonald House and found they had a house full of at-risk kids but no sanitiser, so he gave them some.

For their part, getting it into supermarkets seemed all too hard. For a start, the competition in those early days was cutthroat, even without the supply chain issues. All the containers needed to ship it came from China – the world’s factory – which had gone offline. The second China opened back up, Jon knew, the market would be flooded.

“We got out of the hand sanitiser business pretty quickly,” he says. “I never wanted to make sanitiser for a living. I just want to get back to making amazing gin.”

Now the Larks are just waiting until September to see what happens when JobKeeper ends and the federal government support falls away.

Whatever comes, Lark is hopeful. The island may have just reopened to visitors, but online sales have helped them keep going.

Then there are the special projects. On World Gin Day, 13 June 2020, the couple announced a limited run of gins aged in a 600 litre cask of Wally White wine. With it, they’ll be raising money for Team Rubicon, an organisation that has been helping farmers rebuild after the fires.

Apart from that? Even with things opening up, all Jon knows is that things won’t be the same.

“They’re telling us our business will be different forever from now on,” he says. “People will arrive, sit down and get hand sanitiser. You can’t escape it. We’ll be asking, ‘Can I start you off with some sanitiser, sir?’”

Royce Kurmelovs

Royce Kurmelovs

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Royce Kurmelovs is an Australian freelance journalist and author of The Death of Holden (2016), Rogue Nation (2017) and Boom and Bust (2018).

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