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The UK Is Drinking Counterfeit Vodka Made of Paint Thinner

In the UK, seizures of counterfeit vodka are rising at alarming rates. Could you be drinking paint thinner or nail polish remover next time you sip a martini in London?
Hilary Pollack
Los Angeles, US
Photo via Flickr user Alisa Cooper

Bootleg liquor is nothing new. There's always been moonshine and mead; in more recent history, there's been Hamossy, Johns Daphne, and Johnnie Worker Red Labial. 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, according to Securing Industry. (Russian officials decided to relax the ban just a few weeks ago, permitting sales of alcohol online but only through approved stores and with some other restrictions.) Just this past March, 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 2012, 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.

Just this past week, there were several notable crimes of the fake-booze persuasion. In Leicestershire, more than 400 shops received warnings after a local woman purchased what she 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.)

Just over 100 miles away in Walthamstow, a shop called Pat's Mini Mart is about to face a licensing committee that could revoke its right to sell alcohol, after earlier this year, 164 bottles of wine, 15 bottles of whiskey, and six bottles of vodka were seized from it and found to be either counterfeit or illegally purchased. In the cases of both Walthamstow and Leicestershire, the shop owners said that they had purchased the counterfeit booze from men who were selling it door-to-door, the former saying that the seller was a "white van man." Beware the white van man.

One website, Drink Aware, is dedicated to warning consumers about the growing counterfeit liquor problem in the UK. It recommends 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 corner store down the block that always seems to have suspicious deals and shelves full of dusty cans of Vienna sausages; recognizing, in terms of "price," that there is such a thing as a deal that's too good to be true; exercising some awareness of your surroundings and 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.

Though these tips may seem obvious, most of us have been guilty of swilling from a plastic bottle of generic Russian vodka at some point or another. But if you're looking for a bargain handle of liquor, especially in the UK, it pays to make sure that you're not getting drunk off of paint thinner.