There’s nothing like a refreshing piña colada, mojito or a beer while on vacation. And with the way things are now—with travel restricted and the need for social distancing—we will all, at some point, if not already, definitely need some kind of a vacation. And when that day arrives, the drinks will, undoubtedly, be flowing.
But we also have to keep in mind that tainted alcohol can be a risk while you’re on an international vacation , and there are other unsavory reasons drinking while out of your usual element can be unsafe—even if you’re ordering a simple cup of soda or a mocktail.
What is tainted alcohol?
Tainted alcohol is pretty much bootleg alcohol. It is not regulated, nor is it legal to produce, sell or make any sort of profit off of. A common practice in the making of tainted alcohol is the addition of methanol—an ingredient found in antifreeze as well as fruit juices and fermented drinks (though in very small quantities). It is toxic when ingested in larger portions and if consumed can result in death.
According to the World Health Organization:
Problems arise when higher concentrations are formed during incorrectly managed distillation processes, but more particularly when methanol is deliberately added to fortify informally-produced spirits and illicit alcoholic drinks.
Ultimately, this means that methanol is used to make the liquor much stronger and sold the Black Market-style (illegally).
An associate professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Matthew Johnson says the most common additive to taint alcohol is “the use of scopolamine, phencyclidine (PCP) or methaqualone.
You can find out if any establishment you are headed to has been reported for tainted or counterfeit alcohol by going to SafeProof.org. The founder of SafeProof says, “The only way to tell for sure [that alcohol is tainted] is a lab test, and that’s obviously just not possible in most cases.”
Symptoms of tainted alcohol
Symptoms of ingesting tainted alcohol can be hard to detect because they very nearly mirror the feeling of being intoxicated. The World Health Organization says symptoms include:
- Abdominal pain
- Obscured vision
The ultimate effects can lead to blindness, coma and death from respiratory arrest.
Drink what you can see
Just as you’d watch while your Subway sandwich is made, you should look on as your cocktails are being assembled. Seeing your drinks made right in front on you can give you an instant red flag if something is added that does not belong. This doesn’t preclude an establishment from pouring tainted booze into a familiar bottle, of course, but it does at least give you some small measure of control.
Use the straw taste test
Like every good bartender who wants to ensure they are serving tasty drinks to patrons, practice the art of dipping a straw into your drink while pressing the top of to hold its contents inside, allowing you to take a small taste test. By tasting your drink in smaller doses, you can potentially keep yourself from indulging in alcohol tastes off, indicating it has been tainted or could potentially cause you harm.
As Kimberly Seay, a nurse and director of assistance at Allianz Global Assistance USA told USA Today, if you are suspicious of the color or the taste of your drink, “trust your instincts and do not drink it”
Check for anything floating around
Drink additives might be colorless and odorless, meaning the taste test or a simple glance won’t be enough. However, in circumstances where someone might have slipped a roofie (Rophylyn) or another type of drug into your drink you could be able to see something floating around in the liquid—so check..
PCP, in a crushed form, can look like a powdered sugar if not completely dissolved. Look into the glass by peering up through the bottom to see if you can spot any unexpected substances that haven’t been fully mixed-in or dissolved.
When in doubt, test it out
If you want the extra peace of mind, you can bring along test strips that will quickly allow you to detect the presence of certain so-called “date rape drugs” like GHB and Ketamine drugs in your drink; this post on Bustle recommends the SipChip and the SABRE drink test kit.
Leave the drink
If you’re headed off to dance with friends or need to go to the bathroom and don’t want to take your drink with you, if you can’t leave your drink in the hands of a trusted friend, leave it.
Unscrupulous people can spot tourists from a mile away and are just waiting for you to put your cup, bottle or glass down. Being in a party mood, you wouldn’t realize someone has done something to your drink until it’s too late. So if you have to set it down unattended, forget finishing it.
In a preliminary study of 969 people done by Alcohol.org, 44% of men and 56% of women reported unknowingly consuming spiked drinks (or food)—with 37% having drinks (or food) spiked multiple times. Data will always vary in these cases based on location, age and other variables, of source, but keeping a close eye can help keep you safe.
In situations where it’s at all possible, you can opt to bring your own bottles. Heading to duty-free in the airport is the best way to get the wine, liquor or liqueur that you like most and be assured it has not been tainted or toyed with. Although you may not be able to bring your own bottles into commercial establishments, it’s a fantastic idea if you’re staying at an Airbnb or private property where you can be your own at-home bartender. You can also double-check with your resorts to see if they allow you to BYOB.
Any liquor sold at the airport is heavily regulated, ensuring your purchases from the duty-free will deliver a safe product.