A fresh coconut, the meat and water mixed with rum, sipped on a beach in Jalisco. Sweet and bubbly chicha de jora straight from a Peruvian homestead. An unmarked bottle of homemade arak sitting around a table in Bcharre, snowflakes falling here and there.
No matter how you travel, drinking local spirits often goes hand-in-hand with the experience. But with the recent news that at least 19 people in Costa Rica have died since June due to methanol poisoning from bootleg alcohol, and the theory that the recent spate of mysterious deaths in the Dominican Republic may also have to do with fake alcohol, you may just be wary of partaking on future trips.
It seems, in fact, that news of fake alcohol poisoning is suddenly everywhere. So what’s the deal with fake alcohol, and is it possible to continue to party without having to worry? We break it down.
What is fake alcohol?
Fake alcohol is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a bootleg distillate, very often sold as if it were legally produced. For context: the alcohol that humans can drink is made with ethanol. Fake alcohol, on the other hand, is either made or mixed with other forms of alcohol, many of which are extremely dangerous to imbibe.
According to DrinkAware:
“Commonly used substitutes for ethanol include chemicals used in cleaning fluids, nail polish remover and automobile screen wash, as well as methanol and isopropanol which are used in antifreeze and some fuels. These other types of alcohol can produce similar effects to ethanol in terms of making you feel tipsy. But they are also potentially very dangerous.
Drinking alcohol containing these chemicals can cause nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain, drowsiness and dizziness. It can also lead to kidney or liver problems and even coma.”
In fact, officials believe that alcohol mixed with “toxic levels” of methanol — which is often used in products like antifreeze — was the chief cause of the recent deaths in Costa Rica. A recent post on The Conversation reveals that the market for counterfeit alcohol worldwide is actually quite vast, and the lack of regulation involved allows it to flourish. According to the World Health Organization, 25% of the alcohol consumed worldwide is unrecorded, and therefore not monitored for quality or taxation.
The threat of serious injury or even death raises the question: why take the risk? Why even make something this dangerous? The simple answer: money. Whether counterfeiters are making straight-up bootleg spirits like moonshine, or they’re buying counterfeit bottles made to look like expensive wine and spirits and then distributing them to bars and clubs to be sold as the real deal for a huge pay-off, there’s a lot of money to be made from making and selling adulterated alcohol and its harder to trace/recognize/catch if it still has a harsh smell and intoxicant effects.
Should I be worried?
The fact of the matter is that fake alcohol is on the rise. According to the World Health Organization, in the past decade alone, “There have been numerous [methanol] outbreaks in recent years, including in Cambodia, Czech Republic, Ecuador, Estonia, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Libya, Nicaragua, Norway, Pakistan, Turkey and Uganda. The size of these outbreaks has ranged from 20 to over 800 victims, with case fatality rates of over 30% in some instances.”
In February, the Washington Post reported that at least 76 people had died in India due to bootleg alcohol. Counterfeit vodka has been a problem in the United Kingdom for years, leading to the proliferation of information campaigns like SafeProof and DrinkAware. It’s also a consistent problem in Malaysia, Ireland, and Indonesia.
That said: don’t panic. We know it sounds bad, and you should certainly be aware of this growing problem. But this doesn’t mean you need to be a teetotaler when you’re on the road.