From vodka to sanitizer, via a uOttawa lab

Posted on Wednesday, April 8, 2020

portrait of Omid Mcdonald as he stands in at the bar of the Dairy Distillery

“Tons of people reached out to us, asking if we could produce sanitizers. We even had requests from the U.S.,” says Omid McDonald, owner of Dairy Distillery, located in Almonte, around fifty kilometres west of Ottawa.

The Faculty of Engineering alumnus, whose business has been making vodka under the name Vodkow since fall 2018, quickly agreed to the request. He converted all his alcohol reserves, manufactured from milk permeate, into sanitizer.

“We already produce alcohol, so it was easy enough for us to make the switch. But at the very beginning of this crisis, I thought the larger companies would ramp up their production to meet the demand.” 

Instead, McDonald was flooded with calls — the Ottawa Paramedic Service, the Shepherds of Good Hope and the Ottawa Hospital were among those who first approached him, asking if he could provide surface and hand disinfectant.

“When you get these types of calls, the only possible answer is ‘yes.’”

During the current COVID-19 crisis, the craft distillery is offering part of its production to non-profit organizations. Those interested just have to fill out a form to receive sanitizer. The rest is sold, including to the Ottawa Hospital.

“It’s interesting to see how all these craft distilleries that are little companies are quickly able to help in a big way.”

University of Ottawa a proud partner

professor Alexandre Poulain looks at yellow yeast sample in test tube to verify clarity with Jessica Gaudet

Professor Alexandre Poulain along with biology student Jessica Gaudet.

Gaudet was hired in 2017 as a biology lab intern. Her mandate was to optimize the fermentation conditions required for production of high-quality spirits. Her work was critical in the development of Vodkow.

The Almonte facility is working at full capacity around the clock to produce sanitizer, and the University is playing a key role in the production chain.

three bottles of the surface disinfectant created by Dairy Distillary

"The yeast we use to produce alcohol for the sanitizer is made at Professor Alexandre Poulain's lab at the Department of Biology. He's been given permission to keep producing yeast for our sanitizer efforts while the campus is closed.”

Professor Poulain’s lab has had a special connection to Dairy Distillery ever since the business started. It conducts research to optimize fermentation and focuses on milk permeate, a substance dairy producers throw away in large quantities. It continues to provide the distillery with yeast every week.

“In the current lockdown conditions, our involvement is modest but essential. We ensure that the distillery uses quality, genetically identical yeast for each lot,” says Poulain.

“We work between five and six hours a week to ensure delivery of cultures and we take turns helping with production and delivering the yeast on time.”

Dairy Distillery also plans to sell its sanitizers to the general public. “For each product sold, we will give one to a frontline group,” says McDonald.

“It’s a bittersweet situation. Everyone wants to help and we’re all trying to do our best. But I hope we can get back to vodka soon,” he adds.

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