The Sunday News
Bruce Ndlovu, Sunday Life Reporter
IMITATION is the sincerest form of flattery, the old adage goes, but when it comes to alcohol, high-end whiskey in particular, this is not strictly true.
Recently, according to an anonymous source, a bar and bottle store owner found the true cost of cheap booze recently after he invited a friend, an expatriate on a visit to Zimbabwe, to one of his joints in the posh suburbs of Bulawayo.
On the night, the bar owner’s friend was treated to the best that the bar could offer, with Hennessy cognac being his poison of choice.
While the night was thrilling, as the booze flowed while he kept his eye on the “talent” in Bulawayo, the morning was less so, as what was thought to be a simple case of a powerful hangover after an all-night alcohol bender quickly degenerated to an emergency as the expatriate had to be rushed to hospital.
Blame was immediately pinpointed to the alcohol he had been enthusiastically gulping down the previous night.
“The guy had always drunk that brand of cognac but it had never brought that kind of reaction out of him the next morning.
So, he naturally began questioning the authenticity of the booze that his friend had been serving him,” the source told him.
Such reactions have become commonplace in Bulawayo and other parts of Zimbabwe, where revellers complain of unusually painful hangovers or, in extreme cases, hospitalisation after imbibing certain premium whisky brands that are expected to be not as punishing on the body as other cheaper bottles.
However, indications are that in the City of Kings and other areas in Zimbabwe, most bars and nightclubs are now stocking counterfeit booze as they seek to boost profit margins.
An investigation by our sister paper the Sunday Mail earlier this year revealed that most of the booze is smuggled via Mutare from Mozambique, with well-knit smuggling syndicates said to be well-organised and well-resourced.
From the Forbes Border Post, the liquid contraband is allegedly loaded into trains, long-distance trucks, private and public vehicles for sell in Zimbabwe. The Cecil Kop Nature Reserve, Bordervale Penhalonga and Imbeza are some of the entry points used for smuggling the liquor.
A bottle of fake Jameson Whiskey, brought for as little as $12 in Mozambique, can cost as much as US$40 in some joints in Bulawayo.
Since there’s no quality control or oversight over how these drinks are produced, they may contain very high amounts of ethanol, increasing the risk of poisoning. They may also contain harmful and toxic ingredients like methanol which can cause blindness and is often lethal.
Other drinks are contaminated during production with toxic chemicals and animal products that may be added to speed up fermentation. When these drinks are consumed, they pose a high risk of poisoning and infection, health experts said.
While distributors of authentic brands of booze have mostly stayed on the sidelines as a pandemic of fake booze has swept through Zimbabwe, Bullred, the official distributors of Jameson whiskey in Zimbabwe, have started a Buy Original campaign, which is meant to shine the light on the differences between authentic and fake bottles of whisky.
Socialite Gilmore Tee has been appointed as the face of the campaign.
In response to an inquiry from Sunday Life, Bullred’s sales manager Tatenda Ruwodo said that while they did not have numbers of fatalities emanating from the consumption of fake booze, the adverse effects it had on imbibers was well known.
“We do not have any documentation of casualties as we do not have access to those numbers. We have received complaints from members of the public who have purchased alcohol from various places and have complained of texture, smell and taste.
We recognised that they were sold illicit imitation alcohol and we addressed this issue by adding extra security features to our bottles to give customers the tools to identify stock distributed through the original channels.
We are also engaging medical professionals to help educate consumers on the dangers of illicit alcohol consumption,” she said.
While they were fighting to combat counterfeits, Ruwodo said it was difficult to do so as people gravitated towards Jameson as it was a brand that was a symbol of high status and prestige.
“A simple way to put this is if we use an example like Nike. It is a product that everyone aspires to, it is not always affordable to the masses, illegal operators see the demand and make their own “Nike brand” at a lower cost. We believe that Jameson is an aspirational brand that people want to be associated with and illegal manufacturers try to meet this demand by selling illicit alcohol at a lower price.
This is a sad example of supply and demand economics. However, the risks are much more serious when consuming illicit alcohol as opposed to a counterfeit piece of clothing,” Ruwodo said.
She also said that although Zimbabwe had laws to combat the distribution of illicit alcohol, there was only so much they could do as distributors to stem the inflow of counterfeit booze on bar shelves.
“As a distributor that observes the laws of Zimbabwe, we as Bullred have attained all the necessary licences to distribute alcohol and we also ensure that we only sell to licensed retailers.
We cannot speak to specific laws and regulations as that is not our expertise. All we can do is ensure we follow the laws in place and do everything we can to inform consumers on how best to protect themselves when purchasing Jameson Irish Whiskey,” she said.
As part of the Buy Original campaign, several markers have been put on bottles to alert imbibers on whether the alcohol they purchase is real or fake.
“Firstly, we have added extra security features to all our bottles. Consumers should look out for a clear plastic seal on the lid of each bottle, as well as a white “Drink Responsibly” sticker on the side.
We are also working on a campaign to spread the Buy Original message and the dangers of illicit alcohol We as Bullred Distribution, pride ourselves on selling the original product, which we stand behind.
We are not responsible for the imitations that you see in the market and we are actively working to educate consumers.”