Illicit liquor: What you see is not what you get

Smuggling goods across porous borders is another problem that seems uncontrollable. Adrian Lackay, spokesperson for the South African Revenue Services, says that the source for cane spirits, often used as a base for fake brandy, are countries that grow sugar cane like Swaziland and Mozambique. Namibia has recently accused South Africa, Angola and the DRC as the countries of origin of illegal brandy and whisky. But calling culprits is futile as the illegal trade is widespread.

It seems as if it is impossible to stop the illegal alcohol trade. According to SALBA the profits made from illicit sales by far outweigh punitive measures. Fines, seizures and arrests are only temporary hiccups for the illegal trade. To quote Kruger: “It is a never-ending cycle and we (and the authorities) never actually get it (the illegal trade) under control.”


How to detect fake liquor

1. The price of a bottle of spirits According to SALBA, the cost of producing a bottle of brandy, that includes the raw materials, packaging, excise duty and VAT amounts to almost R50 ($6.12). Vodka and cane is slightly less at about R45 ($5.50). So spirits for sale below R50 a bottle is suspect. The adage: “if it is too ‘cheap’ to be true, it probably is”, is applicable.

2. The quality of the bottle Luxury bottles of spirits normally have an appearance of quality and have distinct shapes and characteristics. When How we made it in Africa was shown two bottles of vodka, of which one was counterfeit, we were unable to point out the fake one. A brand protection agent pointed out discrepancies in the contours of the bottle and duller and less accurate paint work. Bottle tops are often made of inferior material and tend to bend or crumble on opening. Also, loose bottle tops and broken seals indicate a tampered with or inferior product.

3. Labeling This is one of the most obvious places to detect a suspicious product. Since many counterfeit products are made in non-English speaking countries, spelling mistakes is a sure give away. Labels that are not straight and glue marks indicate that it has been stuck on by hand. Counterfeit alcohol will often not indicate the name or address of the manufacturer, or the country of origin. The absence of revenue stamps and government health warnings are also telltale signs.

4. Bottles filled to different levels Since small-time illegal operations often fill bottles by hand, the levels are not always accurate.

5. Smell One of the most obvious indications of a fake product is the smell. Fake vodka apparently smells like nail varnish or acetone. The absence of the distinct aroma that is associated with certain brands of vodka, or whisky, etc. or the presence of “funny” smells should alert the consumer.