How big a problem is counterfeit spirits?

The vast majority of the branded international spirits sold in reputable shops, bars and restaurants are genuine.

However, for the IFSP member companies the scale of counterfeiting of their brands is not the primary issue. Protecting consumers and preserving the reputation of brands is of paramount importance, so every counterfeit is taken very seriously, which is why IFSP was created and continues to operate, funded entirely by its members.

Methanol Poisoning Incident in the Czech Republic 2012

In September 2012, the Czech Republic began to report a number of deaths due methanol poisoning. Over a few weeks the figure reached 38, and there were also 4 linked deaths in Poland and another in Slovakia. The poisonings continued for some time and the eventual death toll exceeded 50, with many others hospitalised and suffering permanent health damage. The police quickly identified the source of the methanol-contaminated alcohol, which was being sold unbranded, and made a number of arrests, which led to lengthy prison sentences for those responsible.

Methanol Poisoning

Methanol, which is also known as methyl alcohol or wood alcohol, is a form of alcohol that is poisonous if injested. As little as 30ml could be lethal. It is used as antifreeze, as a solvent, as fuel, and as denaturant (an additive that makes otherwise potable alcohol unfit for human consumption) for example in methylated spirits. All of these have been and are being used by spirits counterfeiters, since they are cheap and easily accessible.  

Counterfeiters will attempt to remove any contaminants from whatever liquids ('wet goods') they are using to make their counterfeits, often by adding bleach and crudely filtering through charcoal. This may leave particles suspended in the liquid, which can be an indicator that a product is counterfeit.  But, to remove methanol requires the liquid to be heated to the point that it evaporates off (at 64.7 degrees Centigrade), which is a potentially dangerous process as it is a volatile and flammable substance, and which counterfeiters do not always get right, whether through ignorance, carelessness or greed. If the temperature is not high enough methanol will be left behind in the counterfeit spirit, and since it is colourless and smells similar to ethanol (drinking alcohol).

Any methanol that is injested stays in the body until all the ethanol has been processed.  The body then converts the methanol to formaldehyde and then to formic acid.  The latter attacks the soft tissue organs in the body, the kidneys, liver, eyes and brain, causing blindness, coma and death.

Symptoms of methanol poisoning include: 

  • Vomiting (severe)
  • Diarrhoea or abdominal pain (severe)
  • Headache (severe)
  • Low blood pressure
  • Dizziness or disorientation
  • Blush-coloured lips & fingernails
  • Agitated behaviour
  • Blurred vision or blindness
  • Breathing difficulty
  • Convulsions or seizures. 

While there have been no confirmed cases of fatal methanol poisoning involving counterfeited IFSP brands, IFSP's members take the threat of methanol poisoning very seriously and IFSP has sought to raise awareness of this risk through its training programmes, including working with the Methanol Institute (www.methanol.org) on joint presentations to law enforcement and health professionals.