No, quarantine hasn’t entirely warped your sense of smell: That new bottle of hand sanitizer you recently acquired really does smell like liquor. Mine smells like cheap tequila left in the sun adjacent to a dead fish, personally, but I guess that’s preferable to having germ-y hands.
There are two reasons why new hand sanitizer smells like booze. The first is that, well, it just is partially booze. Prior to the pandemic swallowing up the world’s medical supplies, most hand sanitizers were created from isopropyl or ethyl alcohol made from fossil fuels. This is different from the alcohol that is recreationally consumed, which is produced from fermentation and distillation of fruit or grain mixtures. While liquor similarly contains ethyl alcohol, the source of the ethyl alcohol is what makes various spirits have their distinct flavor. More pure forms of alcohol, on the other hand, require propene, a compound of fossil fuels. Combined via a heating process, then filtered and distilled, propene and water can yield alcohol in its purest form.
There are refineries globally devoted to producing isopropyl alcohol, but they can’t currently meet the demand. So liquor distillers have picked up some of the slack. Rather than using isopropyl or ethyl alcohol from propene and water, though, liquor refineries utilize ethyl alcohol from fermented fruit and grains. While drinkable booze itself doesn’t contain enough alcohol to properly sanitize, the ethyl alcohol that makes booze can be used in higher concentrations to make an effective hand sanitizer when processed properly.
Basically, the hand sanitizer you’re using now was likely made in a facility previously used to make vodka or tequila, and is essentially using the same ingredients. The ethyl alcohol may have been the product of fermented and distilled agave or grain, and it smells accordingly.
Even if it’s not made directly from the same ingredients as your preferred booze, the second reason why it might smell like liquor is simply because it was made in the same facility and has picked up the scent.
Regardless, you wouldn’t want to actually consume the hand sanitizer made from ethyl alcohol, because it contains a dangerously high level of alcohol and isn’t fit for humans. Still, it’ll work just fine for killing off any germs on your hands. Allegedly, there have been some reports of people suspected to be drunk driving when pulled over because of the overwhelming tequila smell of their hand sanitizer. This is probably just an urban legend, though, and a quick breathalyzer test will prove you innocent.
Because for better or for worse, tequila-scented hand sanitizer won’t be absorbed into the skin to get you drunk.