By all accounts, a lot of Zimbabweans are risking their health — and lives — by buying illegally distilled liquor flavoured with unknown substances and marketed in labelled bottles closely resembling well-known international brands.
Reports that some people have died in recent weeks from the fake whiskeys make sad reading.
The cartels bringing in such toxic liquids need to be brought to book. We encurage the police to be more vigilant in their raids.
Investigations by this paper have revealed that in some cases the bottles and labels might even be genuine, just recycled, but the contents are likely to be the worst of home distilled products and significantly more dangerous than what is made in a number of backyards or secret riverbank locations.
Batch distilling, what is called pot still manufacture, is invariably used by the illegals. The continuous processing system now largely used by major industrial manufacturers requires a lot of expensive equipment. Pot still distilling can be safe; in fact, it was the way almost all distilled spirits were produced for centuries. But it does require expertise and a willingness to think about the safety of customers.
For example, the first few percent, and sometimes a bit more than a few percent, of each batch has to be thrown away, since it contains the bulk of the poisons and foul-tasting substances. Some illegal distillers who are several steps removed from their customers may not bother. Stills can be made out of poisonous materials, or materials that will leach poisons into the brew being distilled.
And then other horrendous substances can be thrown in, ether to add punch or mask unpleasant tastes or simply try and modify acid balances or change chemical reactions.
And with the fake branded products the additives may well comprise poisonous chemicals to give the right colour and something vaguely like the required flavour.
At one time the police used to have the illegal distilled substances they seized carefully tested and they found almost everything, up to and including battery acid, added. Later they just went back to charging distillers with the more serious crime of not paying taxes. But the cheap and very poisonous substances sometimes sold under trees gives an indication of what may be in these fake bottles.
In any case it is difficult to understand why buyers think they could be getting anything genuine.
Excise duties are a large slice of the retail price of any distilled liquor, but vast quantities of untaxed liquor do not circulate. Either this is kept in strictly controlled bonded warehouses or is sold in airport duty-free shops at notoriously high mark-ups. So if what you are offered looks very cheap it is fake, and the bottles could contain anything.
And the person trying to have an affordable drink does not have to go far. If they are buying retail there are relatively inexpensive can spirit brands on Zimbabwean shelves. A bit of imagination with cordials and other flavourings can produce some interesting drinks.
Then it is quite legal to brew your own beer or make your own wine. You can even give it to your visitors and friends although selling it may well bring you into conflict with the law. Until a few decades ago, most traditional beer in Zimbabwe was home brewed and there were a lot of village women who had excellent reputations as first-class brewers, using skills and knowledge of things like the best grain varieties passed on through the generations.
Those wanting a cheaper alcohol product and wanting to give traditional brewing a whirl could possibly chat to their grandmothers or get instructions and handy hints from elderly rural aunts.
Equipment in this age of plastic containers is simple, cheap and safe.
Those who yearn for Western style beers have to put in a bit more effort, but again simple equipment plus malted barley and hops, or at least the extracts, will produce some interesting brews. There is an enthusiastic collection of hobbyists already at work on craft beers and the internet means no one need to be in ignorance. Admittedly, most craft beers will be top fermented ales and porters rather than bottom-distilled lagers, but many prefer the “real ales”.
Wines do not need grapes. Other fruits work, and at one stage in Britain there was a large and dedicated group of enthusiasts who made wine from flower-flavoured sugar water because no grapes would grow on a cold wet island before global warming.
Beer and wine are generally safe, which is one reason why governments let their citizens make these non-distilled products. And that untaxed home brewing means that it is possible, with modest effort, to produce a cheaper but genuine and safe product.
With porous borders, a ready supply and a local demand the forgers and smugglers of these fake branded bottles will be difficult to stop by normal means. What is needed is more education so that people realise that they are, first of all, not getting what they think they are paying for, that they are being cheated, and, secondly, that they are probably being poisoned.
Local suppliers have come up with a range of cheaper substitutes that are at least safe and legal and as we have explained it is possible to make you own at even less cost. There is no reason to buy the fake, poisonous rubbish.