How to Avoid Tainted Alcohol When You Travel

Bottle of liquor
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When you’re traveling, keeping safety in mind is paramount, no matter where in the world you are. While many travelers are aware of the more common issues to be wary of, such as pickpocketing or scam artists in busy tourists areas, there are other potentially fatal concerns that go more under the radar — consuming tainted alcohol, for instance. Tainted alcohol has been linked to a number of deaths in popular tourist destinations around the world, including Mexico and Indonesia.

What Is Tainted Alcohol?

Tainted alcohol — also called counterfeit, unregulated, or bootleg alcohol — is liquor that’s been produced illegally via a variety of methods, typically with the goal of minimizing cost and maximizing profit. This could be as simple as replacing a high-end spirit with a low-end one or diluting bottles with water, which are both relatively harmless, or as dangerous as mixing chemicals like indigestible alcohols into the real product, which can lead to death if consumed. A common additive is methanol, which is a form of alcohol commonly used in antifreeze that is fatally toxic to humans in small doses. It can also cause permanent blindness. Bootleggers may put tainted alcohol into bottles with counterfeit labels of popular liquor brands or slip them into genuine bottles from those brands before resealing the cap.

Where Is Tainted Alcohol an Issue?

Tainted alcohol has been found all over the world, including parts of Asia, Europe, and Latin America. In 2017, authorities seized 10,000 gallons of tainted alcohol in Mexico after an investigation into the death of American Abbey Conner, who died at the Iberostar Paraiso del Mar in Playa del Carmen after possibly drinking tainted alcohol. The tainted alcohol was produced served in multiple bars, restaurants, and hotels in Cancun and Playa Del Carmen. And as of June 2019, an ongoing investigation into the deaths of at least 10 Americans in the Dominican Republic over the course of the preceding 12 months is looking into the possibility of alcohol-related causes — potentially tainted alcohol — as many of the deceased fell ill after drinking from the minibar. But tainted alcohol is by no means an issue limited to tourists: in 2018, CNN reported that 86 people, primarily locals, died from consuming tainted alcohol in Indonesia.

How to Avoid Tainted Alcohol

Remember that none of these tips are failproof. They are, however, a good starting point to be mindful about alcohol when traveling.

  • Do your research. Read online reviews to see if guests have been complaining about alcohol-related problems at the restaurant, bar, or hotel you’re planning on visiting.
  • Buy duty-free alcohol from the airport to drink on your travels. It’s much easier to sneak tainted alcohol into bottles at bars than it is to the shops of an airport, where goods are heavily regulated.
  • Avoid hard liquor—the most common type of alcohol to be tainted—at bars. Stick to wine and bottled or canned beer, which are less likely to be contaminated.
  • Watch closely as your drink is made or poured. This is a good rule to follow at any bar, any time. Make sure that everything that goes into your glass comes from a sealed bottle and that nothing suspicious is added to your drink.
  • Pay attention to the taste. Anything that tastes “off” should not be consumed.
  • Inspect the bottles in your minibar. Check out the labels, the seal, and the contents. Labels should be secured directly onto the bottle with a horizontal glue pattern, and they should not have typos. Do not drink anything that is unsealed. If there is sediment in the bottom of your bottle, that may indicate the presence of an unknown substance (though it’s expected in certain drinks, like unfiltered beers and certain wines).

The Symptoms of Consuming Tainted Alcohol

Even if you take every precaution, there’s still a chance you might drink tainted alcohol. If you feel excessively drunk — dizzy, nauseous, and confused, for instance — for the amount of alcohol you consumed, seek medical help immediately, and inform the staff, doctors, or nurses that you might have drunk tainted alcohol. Other symptoms include vomiting, irregular breathing, and falling unconscious. If you’re traveling internationally, keep the phone number of your local embassy on hand, as officials may be able to assist you.