Colombia is in the midst of a “health emergency” after the deaths of scores of citizens from drinking adulterated whisky amid alarm over the high quality of counterfeit bottles flooding the market.
Authorities in Bogotá have confirmed 32 people have died in the past three weeks after consuming spirits tainted with methanol.
Scores more have been treated in hospitals across Bogotá and in the neighbouring municipality of Soacha for poisoning from consuming the tainted alcohol.
The National Institute of Health has expressed its concern about the “notable rise” in deaths, noting that, the amount of deaths this December
for methanol intoxication is the same registered in the country between 2008 and 2015.
A toxic alcohol, methanol is used industrially as a solvent, pesticide, and alternative fuel source.
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It is often deliberately and illegally added to alcoholic beverages as a cheaper alternative to ethanol in countries where taxes on legitimate brands or the cost of legitimate brands are high.
Colombian authorities have identified the greatest quantity of methanol within three particular low-cost brands of spirits, namely Old John Whisky and two aguardiente, an alcoholic beverage typical of Colombia made with anis, brands named Rey de Reyes and Cabanita.
Old John Whisky is named after Friar John Cor, who is referred to in the first known written reference to a batch of Scotch whisky in 1495.
It is produced in Colombia by organisation Vincoca LTDA and has established itself as one of the most popular brands in the country among young people since appearing on the market in 2007.
Amid the health emergency, Bogotá Prosecutor’s Office is also on high alert for recycled bottles of spirits with false stamps, seals and packaging, which
are being inserted into the market as authentic.
It comes following the discovery of a number of illegal alcohol production factories that are producing counterfeit bottles of well known spirits, including whisky.
A recent raid in the Los Martires area of the Colombian capital uncovered more than 3,600 bottles of counterfeit spirits, including Scotch whiskies of different brands such as Grant’s, Chivas Regal and Old Parr Blended Scotch Whisky.
Jose Manuel Martinez, of the Bogotá Public Prosecutor’s Office, said authorities had arrested three individuals, who they say are members of a criminal gang dubbed “Los Quimicos”, who have been manufacturing and selling of counterfeit bottles of spirits in Bogotá, especially blended whisky.
He said: “We are investigating adulterated alcohol in Bogotá and have identified high quality manufacturing of fake seals. Our forensic experts sent the material to Scotland, where it was verified that the seals are almost unrecognisable. The bottles also have a high similarity to the originals.”
Mr Martinez also noted those involved in the elaboration process of the counterfeit whisky have even been able to replicate the tonality and flavour of famous brands.
He said: “In Barranquilla we also found how the whisky is made. The materials, the stills that are used and also how they have effectively been able to replicate the same flavour and aroma as the original products.”
Colonel Jaime Escobar, an adviser to Colombia’s anti-smuggling programme, said the level of counterfeiting of adulterated spirits in the country is so high it is often impossible to distinguish between adulterated spirits and authentic products.
He said: “In general, the most expensive products like whisky are the ones that have the highest level of profitability for criminals. They are made with an alcohol that is not suitable for human consumption and with the addition of other products. They even mix them with other cheap whiskies that produce blindness and consequences that can lead to death.”
Back in 2018, a study by Euromonitor International revealed one in four bottles of alcohol sold in Colombia was fake, with the market for counterfeit alcohol having grown by nearly 25 per cent.
The alcohol market was calculated to be worth £5.2 billion per year, with an estimated 19% corresponding to the share of counterfeit alcohol.