We former “little rascals” recall covering our tracks by refilling the vodka bottle with water—a white lie to stay out of trouble. Places worldwide commit similar acts of deceit, ironically called “adulterating” alcohol, watering down bottles at bars or even filling empty pricey bottles with a lesser product.
A sleuth-like imbiber may taste or smell the difference, but most victims in these scenarios are none the wiser. They either don’t get the buzz they were after or experience worse-than-expected hangovers. This crime—it’s in fact criminal—doesn’t carry a weighty health risk for the victim, but other alcohol tampering tactics do.
Consumers worldwide need to understand the damage “fake alcohol” is doing. The implications go beyond economic; innocent people are dying by the dozens, being poisoned by the thousands.
As recently as Sept. 29, Iran Front Page reported a three-day streak of fake alcohol poisoning that led to 27 deaths, while over 300 sought treatment at hospitals and clinics exhibiting signs of methanol poisoning. Just a week before that, 15 victims lost their lives in Malaysia, and over the summer, 26 British teens on holiday were hospitalized after methanol ingestions, with one going blind and another suffering liver damage.
Furthermore, cases in the news only account for those who make it to the hospital. There is no way of knowing how many more fall ill and suffer lasting symptoms.
What is Fake Alcohol?
To those unfamiliar with the topic, “counterfeit alcohol” might suggest moonshine, as it’s high-proof and often unlicensed and unregulated. Instances of adulterating alcohol do occur in the United States, but the occurrence of lead in moonshine poses the only substantial stateside risk—and it’s a small one, as these moonshines are produced and consumed on an individual level. I’ve had plenty of quality moonshines, from distillers who take great pride in their product—ethanol art.
When it comes to fake alcohol worldwide, no genre of drink is immune. Liquor, beer, and wine have all been targeted; vodka is most commonly faked.
The alcoholic components of these counterfeit products can contain water mixed with the likes of chemicals from cleaning fluids, nail polish remover, ingredients from antifreeze, isopropanol, and the most frequently used, methanol.
These fake alcohols can produce a similar “tipsy” feeling as ethanol, but the health dangers are far worse. The chemicals can cause nausea, vomiting, drowsiness, and dizziness—often mistaken for regular drunkenness—but can also lead to kidney and liver damage, nerve damage, blindness, and death.
Counterfeit alcohol is the game, and winners pocket serious cash. People love a deal. The counterfeiters approach stores, restaurants, bars, or even folks on the street and offer what they claim is the “real thing” at a much lower price.
While a wealthy couple vacationing in Greece may not directly fall victim to such offers, the owner of the local store, where the bar manager selects liquors for mixing, may find the deal enticing. In most cases, the perpetrator is several degrees of separation from a poisoned victim.
In metropolitan areas, particularly those with a spring break or party vibe, getting to the hospital is a “better safe than sorry” matter of epic proportions. Hospitals in places like Greece, Israel, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Mexico are sadly familiar with fake alcohol poisoning. No matter where you are, if you feel a level of clumsiness, shakiness, or drunkenness that doesn’t feel right, get to the hospital right away.
When out shopping for alcohol, always check that caps are fully intact and don’t easily rotate or leak, and that labels are affixed symmetrically and show no signs of creasing.
In liquors, always check for sediment. Turn the bottle upside down and then back up, checking for falling particles. Sediment indicates poor hygiene in the bottling environment, and even the cheapest of ethanol liquors are produced in sanitary conditions.
Amanda Burrill sees through an adventurous lens, typically focused on culinary and travel. Her education includes a bachelor’s in archaeology, a master’s in journalism, a culinary degree from Le Cordon Bleu, and wine and spirits credentials earned while living in Paris. She is a U.S. Navy veteran, Ironman triathlete, high-alpine mountaineer, and injury connoisseur who ruminates on UnchartedLifestyleMag.com
Good to Know
According to a June 2018 report from the International Alliance for Responsible Drinking, illicit alcohol activity in the category of “counterfeit” is also a significant documented problem in the following countries:
Western Hemisphere: Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Brazil
Eastern Hemisphere: Ireland, Czech Republic, Russia, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, India, Vietnam