By Kristy Dorsey

Scotland’s largest producer of sanitising gel will today receive its first shipment of alcohol from distiller William Grant & Sons after brokering a fast-track deal to keep vital supplies flowing to front-line workers.

The agreement to supply TR Bonnyman of Beith with denatured grain neutral spirit comes amid growing shortages and soaring prices for alcohol and other vital ingredients used to make sanitising gel. Demand has surged as the coronavirus outbreak has taken hold, with Bonnymans’ typical run of 1,000 litres per week now at 50,000 litres per day.

Stephen Allam, owner and managing director of Bonnymans, said he bumped up his regular order for alcohol to 11 tankers at the end of February in anticipation of huge demand. But even at that, supplies were running low.

“We were at panic stage on Monday because we were going to run out of alcohol within three days,” he said. “Then I walked out to the front desk and there was a guy there from William Grant’s who said he had something he thought we needed.”

An arrangement was quickly agreed but couldn’t go ahead without approval from HM Revenue and Customs, which is responsible for collecting duty on alcohol for recreational consumption.

Grain neutral spirit is used by distillers in the production of vodka and gin. If it is to be used for other purposes like hand sanitiser, HMRC must have evidence that it has been denatured, making it unfit for human consumption.

Bonnymans secured a supply of Bitrex – the bitterest known substance in the world – to denature the spirit from William Grant and submitted its plan to HMRC. With help from local MP Patricia Gibson, an agreement was reached in short order.

“Dealing with HMRC can be slow and difficult, but that was all done within 12 hours, which was really remarkable,” Mr Allam said. “In this instance, I really can’t praise them enough.”

Bonnymans has focused its efforts on supplying customers whose front-line workers are at greatest risk of contracting and spreading the virus. This includes the NHS, police forces, essential retailers, banks and parcel delivery companies.

Last week, Bonnymans made a £100,000 donation of hand sanitiser to North Ayrshire Council which is being used by its health and social care staff who are continuing to work out in the community and care homes. Mr Allam said the company was “delighted” to be able to make the gift.

“It is vital that we help these people out,” he said. “The work they do will see us through this crisis, and they deserve our support.”

Since the outbreak took hold in the UK, the price of alcohol for sanitary use has rocketed from £500 to £3,500 per tonne. The cost of the thickening agent required to make hand gel has also surged, and there is a shortage of small plastic bottles used for packaging.

Mr Allam declined to go into specifics, but said the price William Grant is charging for its alcohol is “reasonable”.

“They are just more concerned about getting these goods to the people who need them,” he said.

On the subject of profiteering, Mr Allam said Bonnymans stopped supplying one online retailer a couple of weeks ago when it became apparent that buyers were re-posting the sanitiser for sale on a different online marketplace at inflated prices.

Small bottles were being sold for £25 or more, compared to what he described as a “fair price” of £5 per litre bottle.

“The prices were crazy – there were even some at as much as £50,” he said. "We wanted to stop this terrible profiteering.

“We remain one of the most competitive on the market that I can see.”