By Liza Weisstuch

The current dystopia

Reflections on a changing world
If you had told me four weeks ago that hand sanitiser would be the hot topic in whiskey chatrooms, at dinner tables, and even in the US Congress, I would have laughed. Loudly. Then again, if you had told me four years ago that Australia and California would be on fire, toilet paper would be almost as valuable as truffles, I would have applauded you and introduced you to my friend in Los Angeles who writes for network comedy shows.

And yet, here we on the precipice of spring. On the early April day on which I write this, I sit at my desk in my generally quiet neighbourhood in Queens, five miles from Times Square and 2.5 miles from Elmhurst Hospital. If you had told me that on this day, Times Square would be a ghost town with a few ambulances and police cars cruising through intermittently and Elmhurst Hospital would teem with an international crowd of people; if you told me that the Times Square billboards would perform their giddy, garish electric spectacle for almost no one while news teams and cops set up outside the public hospital, I would have told you that you have it completely backwards. And yet, the hospital is now the centre of national attention because it’s among the first in the US to be overwhelmed by Covid-19 patients, leading to extreme shortages of both ventilators and personal protective equipment.

Now, each day, instead of hearing the familiar ambient noise of cars cruising by and the rumble of the subway on the elevated tracks a block away, I hear sirens. Lots of sirens. On the occasions I do venture outside, I watch the subway trains pass: each car as empty as the last. To say that it feels like a living in a dystopian novel is cliché at this point, but really no other words suffice.

Amid all this “new normal” of streets lined with shuttered pubs, nail salons, gyms, hardware stores, phone stores and Starbucks, and headlines that scream of doom, I am heartened by the industry we all know and love. No, dear reader, not because of the delight I take in a glass of Longmorn 16, and not because the bottle of Octomore I take a deep whiff of a few times a day reassures me of my health. (Reports show that losing your smell is an early symptom of Covid-19.) It’s because of news stories like “Distilleries are making hand sanitizer with their in-house alcohol and giving it out for free to combat coronavirus” (CNN on Shine Distillery in Portland, Oregon) and “Anheuser-Busch and Distilleries Race to Make Hand Sanitizer Amid Pandemic,” New York Times. And those are just the national publications. Local publications tell more of the same.

Of course, no good deed goes unpunished. As if the logistics of call-to-action production, sourcing bottles and creating labels weren’t enough of a hassle, the evil gnome of American bureaucracy reared its head.

The industry had to battle to get tax relief for distilleries engaged in this valiant, resourceful effort.

From a piece on Politico, “The provision excusing distillers from excise taxes on alcohol used to make hand sanitizer is barely even a rounding error in the $2 trillion-plus law passed last week. (The Joint Committee on Taxation says that it will cost less than a half-million dollars over 10 years.)”

This should give everyone pause. At this moment in Our American Experiment, a product that’s necessary and universally useful, yet lacking in abundance, became suddenly available. And most distilleries distributed it for free to hospital workers, to boot. Eventually the tax exemption was won, but the regulatory purgatory in which it hung represents the callousness and anti-small business sentiment that American lawmakers are increasingly known for. The Distilled Spirits Council said tax relief was vital for the hundreds of clever distillers that pivoted to hand sanitisers as other parts of their business, like tasting rooms and tours, shuttered. (For the record: bigger distilleries stepped up in a big way, too.) It may sound lofty, but in the end, as a righteous effort prevailed, the growing distillery industry embodied America’s signature resourcefulness and good samaritanship, demonstrating that it’s a cornerstone in this country’s business community.