Fake alcohol – life imitating practical classes

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Yesterday students in Sheffield were advised not to buy cheap ‘counterfeit’ booze, by Trading Standards and the City Council. 

According to reports on the BBC website today there have been around 2000 bottles of the phoney booze seized from 15 retailers in the city.  They have chosen to particularly target students as ‘they like a bargain’.  The local Sheffield Star also reported the council as giving the following information to students:

 Tell-tale signs of fake booze include badly-applied labels, fake tax stamps, misspelt labels, unfamiliar brand names and very cheap prices.

Forgery of alcohol is not uncommon and often occurs in different ways.  A cheap real drink is labelled up as a premium brand and sold off for the higher cost (for example unbranded supermarket vodka being passed off as Smirnoff or Absolut).  An alternative would be for the ‘vodka’ to be composed of a mixture of different liquids which have a similar taste. The first of these methods is obviously fraud but the main concern with this second method is not knowing what the drink is made up of.  In previous cases methanol or acetone may be amongst the chemicals found.  Small volumes of methanol may lead to permanent blindness and not too much more can lead to death.  Acetone takes a greater volume to be poisonous as the liver can process small amounts but it may still lead to death if enough is drunk.

This wouldn’t normally be a hugely noteworthy story, being fairly common. However, firstly it was in Sheffield, where I lecture to many of the students who have received the warning.  Secondly, last year I developed a three day practical session for said students based on exactly this scenario!

 The counterfeit booze bottles are so convincing that it is often hard to tell them apart from the real thing.

In the practical scenario I developed the students do some analysis of the content of the bottles.  They check the alcohol level is the same as the branded sample (it may well have been diluted to save money) and also check for other volatile contaminants.  They get to use our gas chromatography instruments for this.  The students also do some other testing on the labels of the bottle to try and determine if they are forged.

I happened to choose a scenario, forgery of alcohol, which is common enough.  I had been involved with such cases when in NZ. In one case a couple of barrels of fake alcohol were found.  The alcohol content was almost spot on so we then sent samples for carbon isotope ratio testing to compare the origin of the ethanol in the drinks.  In the end there was fairly good evidence against the accused that they were involved in a big scam.

This year I have developed other lab scenarios for our students.  I hope that the rest of these stories are not all going to occur in Sheffield – there would be some grisly news items to come if that were the case.

Perhaps this is why I wasn’t allowed to model a second year lab class on Breaking Bad….


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About Dr Tom Bassindale

Dr Tom Bassindale is a forensic scientist, and the founder of We Are Forensic. He is currently the subject lead for chemistry and forensic science at Sheffield Hallam University. He's managed hundreds of forensic toxicology cases, and is an experienced court witness. He has specialist expertise in forensic toxicology and drug testing in sport. And yes... he watches CSI.