Fakes and Frauds
by Joe Camponella
Hello Bob and readers. I recently helped a friend brew a clone of
Founders IPA and began thinking how much fun it might have been to
have been making bootleg booze during Prohibition. That got me to
look up the topic and found that the practice is still going on. Thought
you all might be interested in the story.
The first think I discovered is that bootlegging liquor is nothing new.
There’s always been moonshine and mead; in more recent history,
there’s been bootlegging of scotch, rum, rye, and vodka. Like
watches, handbags, and jewelry, higher-end brand names of liquor
have attracted scammers looking to make a few extra bucks off of an
inferior product in a fancy (albeit egregiously mislabeled) bottle.
But fake liquor isn’t just a nuisance to the market—it can be lethal. In
2007, Russia went as far as to ban online sales of alcohol because the
prior year, it was estimated that 42,000 Russians died as a result of
drinking counterfeit booze.
Russian officials decided to relax the ban only recently, permitting sales
of alcohol online but only through approved stores and with some
other restrictions. Just this past year 14 Russians were lethally
poisoned in a single incident due to fake liquor likely purchased from
nearby China. And in 2012, 26 people in the Czech Republic died after
consuming methanol-laced counterfeit vodka and rum, with at least a
dozen others sickened, blinded, and brain damaged.
Counterfeit liquors are often laced with methanol (wood alcohol),
isopropyl alcohol (as in the industrial stuff that you use to disinfect cuts
and clean medical instruments with), cleaning fluids, and even nail
polish remover or antifreeze, and because they’re unregulated, can be
well over 50 percent alcohol.
Most recently, the United Kingdom seems to be experiencing a
particularly nasty epidemic of the stuff. Between 2010 and 2014, an
alarming report showed that seizures of illegal counterfeit alcohol
increased 500 percent, and not just because of general black market
activity—during the same period, seizures of consumer electronics and
fake luxury goods (such as handbag and clothing) fell considerably. In
the past two years since, there have continued to be numerous high-
profile incidents of hundreds or even thousands of bottles of fake
booze uncovered in shops all over the UK.
In the past few month there were several notable crimes of the fake-
booze persuasion. In the US, many places received warnings after a
several people purchased what they thought was Glen’s vodka, only
to realize upon sipping it that it had the strong aroma of nail polish
remover. After notifying the authorities, the “vodka” was tested and
found to contain ter-butanol, a common ingredient in paint thinner
and other solvents. Although, they probably should have been tipped
off by the bottle’s label—which had numerous spelling errors, such as
“botteled” and “D-rink.” It probably would have been safe to assume
that these mistakes weren’t just a couple of lazy typos at the factory.
However, some counterfeit liquor is poured into empty bottles that
were legitimately produced by brand names, making them even more
difficult to detect and creating an even greater risk for the public.
Almost all the articles I read suggested using the “4 P’s” to identify and
avoid the dangers of fake alcohol: place, price, packaging, and
product. That means, “place”-wise, shopping at a legit supermarket
instead of the downtrodden place that always seems to have
suspicious deals and shelves full of dust; recognizing, in terms of
“price,” that there is such a thing as a deal that’s too good to be true;
exercising a reasonable degree of doubt if the “packaging” has spelling
errors, lacks duty stamps, has a broken seal, or a sketchy-looking bar
code; and avoiding “products” that have unrecognizable names,
suspicious sediment, or an off taste or smell.
All of this was a surprise to me. The good news is that the beer
industry has not been hit by bogus brews. Whew.
Really interesting article, Joe. Thanks for sending. I guess it only goes
to verify that consumer beware is still our best defense against fraud.
I'd like to invite everyone to send me their own columns about anything
related to beer/drinking/booze just as Joe did. I select the best and
publish them here. So join in and get writing!
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