Grain Alcohol Ban a Sobering Turn for Maryland Luthiers

Maryland’s recent ban on grain alcohol sales has had an unintended side effect on the strings trade. Washington Post reporter Jessica Contrera wrote that the Old Line State joined at least a dozen other states in banning sales of Everclear and other 190-proof alcohols in an effort to reduce drinking-related deaths and sexual assaults on college campuses.

Though available in other forms through laboratory-supply companies, the highly distilled alcohol, often sold under the Everclear brand, was widely available at liquor stores, making it a favorite of violin makers who use the product to make spirit varnish for French polishing and leaning. Outside the potent-potable use that led to the ban, these concentrated neutral spirits readily dissolve ingredients used to make varnish and are then cooked away.

“There’s really nothing else that works,” violin maker Howard Needham told the Post.

Some turn to other alcohols, such a lower-proof grain alcohols or denatured alcohol, but those are considered to be inadequate substitutes for the needs of luthiers. Denatured alcohol is poisonous and is harmful even to breathe while other lower-proof alcohols have a higher water content, making them less useful, according to Jerry Pasewicz of Triangle Strings in Raleigh, North Carolina, another state that bans recreational grain alcohol.

Currently, Maryland’s ban extends to the sale, not possession of grain alcohol, leading many to clear the shelves of the local liquor stores before the June 30 ban was enacted.

All is not lost for violin makers, however. In most instances, the states that have banned sales have a permit exempting certain businesses from the ban, such as laboratories and hospitals. A spokesman for the Maryland state comptroller said that the exemption could apply to violin makers, making it possible for them to buy the necessary ingredient. The extra bureaucratic layer would effectively make the violin makers promise to use it for non-partying purposes.–Greg Olwell