5 Ways the Alcohol Industry Tricks You Into Drinking Garbage
As a dedicated lady and/or gentleman of leisure, you are no doubt well acquainted with the court of King Alcohol, and perhaps have even experienced the many good and ill fortunes his company tends to bring.
What I'm saying is, boozin' be crazy, y'all.
Alcohol can be pure happiness in potable form or its very own circle of hell, depending on your relationship with it. However, human issues notwithstanding, the actual substance is generally pretty straightforward and honest stuff: you take simple ingredients and let chemistry run its horrible course until said ingredients get you shitfaced. It depends on your expertise and available equipment whether this process results in fine wine or prison pruno. My point being, you can't really cheat at alcohol.
Ha, got you for a minute there! You totally can. Here's how:
The Giant Counterfeit Booze Conspiracy
When writing a list-format article, it's usually customary to save the best/worst entry for last, because that's how these things work. However, I'm going to break the format a bit here, because I feel this particular entry is way the hell too depressing to end a column with. You can call this novel approach a test listicle, if you will. Someone should come up with a catchy nickname for that.
Russia easily and Internet-famously takes the cake when it comes to alcohol-fueled not-giving-a-shittery. And when it comes to booze, the country is most intimately associated with vodka -- go ahead, try to picture an inebriated man from Vladivostok attacking a dash-cam-equipped car while waving a whiskey bottle. Can't be done.
It's quite absurd, really. But, of course, a country that fascinated with alcohol has tons of types available. Take cognac, for instance. You can absolutely get tons of this particularly refined brandy in Russia. Except, don't literally take cognac from there, because according to some reports, up to 70 percent of that shit is completely counterfeit. Yes, counterfeit, as in "they cook up cheap-ass imitations of this highly prestigious drink from aromatizers, chemicals, and whatever alcohol they happen to have lying around."
And it's all made by this guy.
Personally, I dislike cognac, so if it wasn't for the fact that people die from drinking it, I wouldn't give a good goddamn whether it was made by mixing ground warthog anus with once-used barley wine. However, fake booze can be extremely hazardous to your health -- and it's not just cognac: wine and, of course, vodka are also highly susceptible to similar counterfeiting, making every time you grab an alcoholic beverage in Russia even more of a gamble than getting drunk in Russia is generally. It seems kind of unfair that a nation already plagued with alcohol-related deaths has its troubles worsened by fake, potentially poisonous booze, but that's how things apparently are.
Here's a video report that estimates around 30 percent of wine in Russia is little more than liquid horseshit.
"But does the horseshit still get me drunk?"
As anyone who has seen a Russian dash-cam video on YouTube can probably guess, getting proper statistics on deaths caused solely by these fake spirits is hard as fuck, though in 2006 the then-interior minister was able to approximate the figure to roughly 42,000 annual deaths.
It's not just a Russian issue, either. Alcohol counterfeiting -- usually in the form of distilling cheap products and packaging them in bootleg versions of expensive brands -- has been touring the world for a while now. In 2012, 26 people died in the Czech Republic because they drank fake vodka and rum. That same year, a single county in the U.K. prosecuted 21 traders and seized about 1,800 bottles of fake alcohol, a figure likely to be just the tip of the iceberg. In an effort to keep this column even a little on the comedic side of things, I'm not even going to discuss the situation in China.
Curiously, and assuming Google isn't hiding some giant American booze conspiracy from me, lethal fake alcohol doesn't seem to be much of a problem in the U.S. That doesn't mean America doesn't have interesting booze problems of its own, though ...
The Craft Whiskey Factory Cheat
In October, fellow columnist and whiskey enthusiast Brendan McGinley saw fit to accidentally grace my birthday with a nuanced ode to my favorite drink, which I proceeded to read with a glass (technically, bottles are made of glass, right?) of delicious, delicious Scotch slowly setting my heart and stomach ablaze. The next morning, once I'd returned the truck and the orangutan and promised the police officers that this was my last Every Which Way but Loose bender this month, I found myself intrigued by a throwaway line in Brendan's column about how a great many whiskeys come from a single distillery in Indiana.
So I started digging around, stumbled onto Eric Felten's Daily Beast article on the subject, and, to put it bluntly, motherfucker.
Turns out, said distillery is MGP Ingredients in Lawrenceburg, and it makes a good number of those small-batch craft whiskeys people have been ranting about in recent years. I'm pretty exclusively a Scotch man, which is probably why I wasn't aware of this earlier (whiskey folk are a tight-knit lot, so I assume the info has been circulating for quite some time among aficionados). In fact, the whole "we make tons of different drinks in this giant factory" thing isn't too shocking. What else do you do if you have a giant factory distillery?
You know, apart from the obvious.
My issue -- as well as Felten's -- is with the many, many "artisanal" distilleries who buy and bottle bulk stuff, yet own shiny copper kettles and boast that they make their own. Take Templeton Rye, an Iowa-based company that blatantly claimed to found their distilling traditions on a prohibition-era recipe handed down through the family on a scrap of paper. When it was found they were buying their fare from MGP, their chairman quickly backtracked and said that, actually, federal regulations prevent the company from making their whiskey using that recipe, and they were totally planning to start putting "Distilled in Indiana" stickers on the bottles. As you can probably guess, the lawsuit-punch they received broke the sound barrier, and many similar companies are under investigation.
Does anyone else kind of want lawsuit-punches to be a real thing now?
That's not to say the hooch they sell is bad, of course. MGP knows its shit. For the most part, the whiskeys leaving the distillery appear to be perfectly decent, even delicious. However, as much as I like, say, Samuel Adams lager, if someone put it in another bottle and sold it to me as a pricey craft beer, so help me I would cut a bitch. And beer-lover Pauli is a lot more reasonable than whiskey-lover Pauli.
Which, incidentally, doesn't bode well for the next entry ...
As any drinker of wine or whiskey can attest, age is an important component to the taste. Both drinks are also handy for forgetting what a horrible person you are for coming up with all those awful jokes about the latter part of the previous sentence.
Friends of traditionally aged alcohol across the world, I stand before you today with a shitload of bad news. To stop myself from ranting, I'm just going to rattle it off:
A retired South Carolina chemist has devised a way to age dark liquors in 12 hours and vodka in just six by pumping them through an oxygenated chamber.
Tom Lix of Cleveland Whiskey has a machine that can age bourbon in mere days by basically tumble-drying the distillate with bits of barrel.
A British inventor is working on an ultrasonic aging device that could be able to age wine in just 30 minutes.
A gadget called Clef du Vin is purportedly also capable of aging wine, this time via dunking its copper alloy head into the liquid for a period of time.
Of course, all of these things are largely faulty techniques. The chemist guy's process does little to mellow the harshness of young alcohol. Lix's concoction apparently sells fairly well, but its taste is compared to paint thinner by an enthusiast. The ultrasonic thing is suspect considering the main media picking the story up is a tabloid. As for Clef du Vin, it seems to be able to mellow a wine's taste but not really improve it, which could makes it handy for making cheap wines more potable, but little else.
Personally, I'm happy that they all seem to be duds but worried that there is a trend to develop these methods of rapid preparation. Don't get me wrong: generally, I'm all for cheat codes. I'm a lazy fucker, and the second someone comes up with a machine that can create a passable glass of Talisker, I'm damn well buying three of those. Even so, the traditionalist in me keeps asking: if anyone could make any fine drink just by pressing a button, would we enjoy them anymore? Would they be fine drinks anymore?
I guess my answer for that question is no. There's a place and time for painstaking, intricate alcohol craftsmanship (in my glass and right now), and I'd argue that something precious will be lost the day technology progresses to the point where "make award-winning Scotch" is a trick your cousin can teach to his dog.
Ever been in a bar and thought your drink was a little ... off? Not necessarily watered-down or spiked with something nefarious, just strange in a way you can't quite put your finger on? Don't worry, you haven't been poisoned (that is, unless the cheap muck your bartender poured in your cocktail instead of your usual brand of vodka was one of those counterfeit bottles we discussed earlier). But you may not be drinking what you ordered, either.
Bottle-switching is a trick where the contents of a brand-name bottle of alcohol are replaced with a cheaper, lower-quality hooch. The same applies for beer taps -- it's ridiculously easy to mislabel a tap and sell you some cheap IPA swill instead of the $16 pint of Elmer's Taint Sweat or whatever shit micro-brew you're into this week. It's not as if you're going to tell the difference after a few drinks.
"Barkeep, this IPA tastes like hoppy venom."
"That's the spittoon, sir, though I understand the mix-up."
It's difficult to gauge just how commonplace bottle-switching is, because according to the guys who get captured, everyone else is doing it too. However, a 2013 sting in the bars of New Jersey -- dubbed Operation Swill, because humor -- showed a fraud rate of about 20 percent, which is a figure that the limited math functions of my brain are prepared to accept as accurate and apply it to the entire world.
Vodka is obviously a prime candidate for aspiring bottle-switchers, seeing as the taste differences between semi-OK vodkas and the prestigious Snoop Dogg-approved brands are virtually nonexistent. However, every once in a while, particularly unscrupulous bartenders/managers touch the drinks that can be easily told apart by experienced drinkers, like this guy, who ordered Macallan Scotch knowing full well what it tastes like, only to receive a glass filled with something completely different and, upon insisting that the drink was not what he ordered, a poker-faced denial.
Yeah, Even That Antifreeze Wine Trick From The Simpsons
Hey, look! There's one more poison booze entry after all. Well, shit, this column is turning into a right misery sandwich, isn't it?
Remember that one Simpsons episode where Bart is sent to France and accidentally uncovers the scheme of two villainous winemakers who mix their fare with antifreeze? That shit totally happened, only in a different country. In 1985, an Austrian wine-growing town renowned for the purity of its product got busted for lacing what could be millions of gallons of wine with diethylene glycol, a sweet-tasting chemical used in, yes, antifreeze (among a million other, equally indigestible things). The substance was supposed to hitch up the wine's price by giving it an extra sugary tang (wines are often rated by their sweetness in the German-speaking world). I can't really say what logic drove the manufacturers to choose a substance specifically known to be poisonous, ship it all over Austria and Germany -- a country known for meticulousness -- and expect no one to test the stuff, but hey, I'm not a professional wine counterfeiter.
At this point, and especially with that Simpsons reference, it's easy to think that this was just the work of some random, beret-wearing, bewhiskered fucker and his accomplice, their scheme just waiting to be thwarted by a jaundiced kid with a sawblade haircut.
Much like any other crime.
So, let's discuss numbers. The initial poison-wine blacklist by West Germany alone included a whopping 350 wines and saw additions as the case grew. The amounts of diethylene glycol the tainted bottles contained weren't kiddie numbers, either. One famously refined and sweet wine was found to contain no less than 16 grams of diethylene glycol per liter. Another, slightly less-revered but nevertheless equipped with a "special quality" seal, contained as much as 48 goddamned grams per liter. The potentially lethal amount, it should be mentioned, is estimated around 14 grams per liter.
According to officials, no one really knows when the tampering started, although seeing as no deaths were reported, they probably caught the practice -- along with the four main culprits -- pretty early on. Their best guess is that the winemakers of the area had made a profitable deal with several supermarket chains 10 years ago, but eventually panicked when grape crop after crop came out too sour to make their wines sufficiently sweet.
As the old saying in the business world goes: when in doubt, fucking attempt to poison millions of people for profit.
Pauli Poisuo is a Cracked freelance editor and weekly columnist. Join his gang on Twitter and Facebook.
For more from Pauli, check out 10 Sex Toys That Make Your Weirdest Fetish Seem Sane. And then check out 26 Comparisons That Will Destroy How You See History.
Check out Robert Evans' A Brief History of Vice: How Bad Behavior Built Civilization, a celebration of the brave, drunken pioneers who built our civilization one seemingly bad decision at a time.