The Great Pretender

The practice of selling fake liquor is all too common

In a bar somewhere on Bui Vien, after drinking a few shots of Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve, Jeff (name has been changed to protect his identity) decided it was time to call it a night, feeling slightly worse for wear as is usual when a night out ends in the Pham Ngu Lao area.

The next day, even though his hangover was severe, he promised to meet his business partner in the afternoon. He never made it into work that day. Tragically, he fell into a coma shortly after the conversation on the phone and began to inhale his own vomit during a seizure.

He was flown to Taipei to receive treatment in an attempt to bring him out of his coma. Sadly he died two weeks later, while everyone in Vietnam was celebrating Tet. Poison from an infection in his lungs had moved to his brain, an infection caused by unknowingly ingesting methanol, the simplest form of alcohol commonly found in solvents, antifreeze and fuel.

Faking it
When disguised in a bucket with a lot of ice and sugary mixer and sold for VND40,000 it’s not easy to detect a counterfeited spirit.

What is troubling, however, is the increasing tactic of making fake alcohol. Not just a watered down version of the original, this new brand of spirits is a deceptive and dangerous batch in itself. “They’re killing people for bigger margins,” says Jeff’s friend, a fellow bar owner. “And they don’t even care.”

Another source believes “some establishments purposely purchase fake alcohol as a way of lowering cost”.

Methanol, also called ‘wood alcohol’, and other industrial substances such as dried alcohol, are used to lower production costs. It has been reported on that alcohol producers can make the same amount of alcohol in 30 minutes that previously would have taken a week using traditional methods. “Is it a terrible hangover from overindulgence, or is it this faked stuff? Are we slowly being poisoned?” questions a bar manager who asked to remain anonymous.

Doctors warn that just 10ml of methanol ingested causes serious damage. Symptoms can include a severe hangover, blurred vision and sometimes loss of vision as it breaks down into formic acid. Falling into a coma is the next step and, as in the case above, death can follow.

Vietnam imposes a huge import tax on alcohol – up to 150 percent. The huge duty on these goods means it’s not surprising that producers are seeking cheaper methods, no matter the human cost, to make bigger profits. “Bootlegging is nothing new,” another industry insider tells us, “but what’s different now is that they are lying to people by using well-known bottles.”

How to Spot It
All the bar owners and managers we spoke to agreed that you must always be vigilant with your stock and what you drink, and never take anything for granted. “We check every bottle as they come in, checking the number on the cap to that of the bottle so we know it’s not been recapped.” Another added, “Every time a bottle is finished, we break it. Break the bottle and it cannot be resold and refilled.”

There are also some tips to spotting a fake. Alcohol, especially higher end cognacs and whiskies, are fairly dense and so giving the bottle a good shake should produce a torrent of mini bubbles that will still be slowly rising even a minute later. “Chivas Regal used to be a popular brand here, regularly counterfeited or faked, but if you give it a good shake from the punt [bottom] you should see a satisfying froth which won’t be there in a dodgy bottle.”

The taste is obviously going to be the most telling so try a small amount and if it’s overly chemical, overly alcoholic tasting, then it’s probable that it’s a fake.

Be vigilant when out drinking, and if a high end brand is at a price that’s too good to be true, it probably is. It certainly isn’t worth risking your life over.

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3 thoughts on “The Great Pretender”

  1. This is a great piece. Though it’s also worth remembering that in a lot of cases you do get what you pay for. Spirits are normally 100 VND+ a shot – if you’re buying them at 40 VND a shot… there’s a much higher chance that it’s not what it says it is on the bottle. Sadly, it doesn’t mean that expensive booze is always real and it is worth paying attention to the small details. I haven’t had fake booze in Vietnam yet (mainly because I drink beer most of the time) but it did happen in China and the taste of the Jack Daniel’s was completely wrong – it was sweeter than the Coke it was served with. It took a huge argument but they did take it back…

  2. “Jeff” was not drinking on Bui Vien that night. He died after drinking his establishments booze. Your facts are not correct.


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