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.
How can I avoid fake alcohol?
Avoiding bootleg alcohol comes down to a mix of common sense and careful consideration of your surroundings. The first thing you should do while planning any trip where you’re worried about the presence of fake alcohol: research. Google whether or not it’s been a problem before, and if it has, check the stories you read for several key elements:
- How many people got sick (to gauge how large of a problem it is)?
- Where and how people purchased the alcohol (to determine whether they were buying fake bottles from shady corner stores or if bars and clubs in the area are distributing fake products)?
- Research whether or not the authorities have confiscated any product.
For example, in India, if you plan on buying bottles of alcohol from a store, the Times of India recommends using a “dedicated government website to check the genuineness of the liquor that you have purchased.” It verifies whether or not the bottle you’re about to purchase is legitimate by checking the serial number located on the bottle. Alternatively, there’s an app called mLiquorSalesCheck that uses the same service but allows you to just scan the barcode. Additionally, make sure you’re buying from registered stores — to do so, try using Tiplur, a mobile app which maps out all the registered stores in your vicinity.
Another important factor: your senses. According to the Washington Post, anthropologist Andrea Villela says of determining whether or not something is safe to drink: “Smelling is very important, because our smelling sense is very raw. It’s still connected to survival instincts. Always sip small and smell the cup.” And use your eyes: especially when buying bottles, check the label to make sure everything is spelled right, the label is on straight, and it’s a brand whose name you recognize or that you can find reviewed online.
Finally, consider the price. Rum is cheap in the Carribean. Tequila is cheaper in Mexico. But there’s no reason a bottle of Ciroc should be significantly cheaper in Costa Rica or the Dominican Republic than it is in the US. Lower overhead is one thing, but “too good to be true” is typically… too good to be true.